Published on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 by the Toronto Star
A Chilling Message to Muslims
by Thomas Walkom
When Sajidah Kutty called the Star on Friday, she seemed more bewildered than frightened.
Her family, frantic to find out what had happened to her father Ahmad, had finally received a phone call from him at 4:30 that morning.
I'm all right, he told them. The Americans were holding him and fellow Canadian citizen Abdool Hamid in a Fort Lauderdale jail. And no, he didn't know why.
"You hear of this kind of thing happening to Muslims just because they are Muslims," Sajidah told me. "But you never really expect it to happen to you or your family."
As it turned out, Kutty and Hamid were finally released and sent home after a bizarre 31-hour ordeal — a post-9/11experience you might say — that began when they landed in Florida last Thursday, climaxed with 16 hours of non-stop interrogation plus a night in jail, and ended with the two Canadians being escorted back to Fort Lauderdale's airport in handcuffs.
Ironically, the pair — both of whom are imams in Toronto — were on their way to a conference dealing with, among other things, the dangers of Islamic fanaticism.
Yesterday, I talked to Ahmad Kutty. The 59-year-old native of India (he's been a Canadian citizen for almost 20 years) is both shocked and bemused by what happened.
The problems began at Fort Lauderdale, the first U.S. port of entry for their Sept. 11 charter flight from Toronto to Orlando. "They (U.S. immigration officials) didn't say they thought we were security risks," Kutty said. "They just said `You're traveling on the wrong day.'"
For 16 hours, the pair was grilled. Kutty teaches at the Islamic Institute of Toronto. Officials wondered if maybe that wasn't connected to other, more sinister organizations that also used the word Islamic.
And then there was the problem of Hamid's name. Interrogators thought it seemed similar to that of someone the U.S. was looking for (among Muslims, the name Hamid is so commonplace that in the Toronto phone book alone there are approximately 200).
FBI officials were brought in. They confirmed the two were not security risks.
"Eventually, at about 1:30 a.m., we were handcuffed and taken to jail. They apologized for the handcuffs but said other police would be angry if they didn't do it. They stripped us of everything — even paper. I had a toothpick and asked, `Can I keep this?' They said no. They even took away my Hall's (cough drops). Did they think I was going to make a bomb with cough drops?"
Being thrown into the tank in Fort Lauderdale at 1:30 in the morning is not the most pleasant of experiences. The two imams were in a cell with 12 other people and one toilet in the middle of the floor. "The ultimate degradation," said Kutty.
Three hours later, they were shifted to a roomier cell. For the first time, Kutty was able to contact his family by phone.
By this time, don't forget, the FBI had decided their detention was a mistake.
Nonetheless, the wheels of bureaucracy grind hard. Later Friday, they were handcuffed again, taken to Fort Lauderdale airport and placed in another cell for four hours before being escorted onto an airplane.
The final insult, recalled Kutty with a grim chuckle, came in Toronto.
"The (Canadian) immigration officer looked at our passports and asked `Why were you returned?' We told him and ... were taken to a section labeled `New immigrants to Canada.' The lady there asked me `Why do want to come to Canada' and I said `Because we are Canadians.'"
After producing drivers' licenses, library cards and other forms of identification, the two were allowed to leave Pearson Airport. "I'm relieved to be home on free soil," said Kutty.
Some might ask: What's the big deal? The U.S. has suffered terrorist attacks. So what if a couple of Muslims spend the night in the slammer. They didn't die.
Where's the harm?
Kutty's answer is simple. If this kind of thing can happen to him — a relatively well-known Canadian Islamic moderate with ties to both civil liberties groups (his son is general counsel to one) and the media — think of what is going on with those who are not so fortunate.
"Some Muslims used to call me a paid agent of America because I stood up for their ideals of freedom and dignity ... These are the kinds of values that we want to teach, the universal values, instead of the cultural baggage that so many immigrants bring with them from India or the Middle East ...
"But if the American immigration officials can go after me and Hamid who are well-known for preaching moderation, what happens to ordinary Muslims?"
A good question.
Ask Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen deported to Syria by the U.S. last October — allegedly with the connivance of Canadian security forces — so that he could be jailed and, according to human rights groups, tortured.
Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited