Profiling is Wrong, Even When It’s Right

I don’t often write with such punch but profiling is like the F word. It’s just profane.

racial profiling drawing

A part of me wanted to ignore the draft report the Department of Justice is considering to expand the definition of prohibited profiling. Without access to the rules, I can only wonder what they might be, and if Muslims should be concerned. I wanted to shun the thought in my head from a CIA officer who once said to me, “Muslims are the new black.”

At least Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has his heart in the right place when he pledges to end racial profiling. In a 2010 speech, he said

“Racial profiling is wrong. It can leave a lasting scar on communities and individuals. And it is, quite simply, bad policing—whatever city, whatever state.

Holder can’t do it alone. It will take a national movement to end the tactic.

Numerous studies prove that racial profiling is an ineffective tool to track criminals and terrorists. In Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, author David A. Harris uses case studies of African Americans and Latinos to understand the law enforcement context in which racial profiling was born. Harris explains that the law enforcement tactic of racial profiling emerged from criminal profiling to hunt down drug offenders. For decades, security agencies preferred this method of suspect, spot and snatch because they argued it made sense. Statistics proved it. Holder is trying to change those rules, but can one man change a nation’s police tactic?

“Decades ago, the reality of racial profiling drove my father to sit down and talk with me about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I felt was unwarranted,” Holder said.

That reminded me of the awkward experience I had at New York’s JFK airport, returning from Pakistan with two children in 2007. Most of the women on the flight from Pakistan with children were sent to a dismal room with gray plastic chairs for additional investigation (read scrutiny).

“Do you know what you are doing? I am with the U.S. Government,” I protested politely.

At the time, my seven-year-old son, whose name is Khalid, was the reason we were pulled aside.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry but his name matches other names who could be a potential threat to the United States,” he said.

“Look at him,” I pointed at the boy. “Does he look like a threat?”

“It’s a mistake. I’ll fix it.”

Profiling has affected different minorities at different times in American history. More recently, “Muslims, in particular, say federal agents have unfairly singled them out for investigation,” reports The New York Times.

In my professional career, I have given talks to law enforcement agencies about the need to understand Islam and the multiple ways Muslims practice their faith. For example, in a room full of law enforcement officers, I was asked how to address a woman in niqab, the face veil.

farhana face veil 1

“If I can’t see her, so how do I approach her?” asked a Sheriff from Dallas, Texas.

“Like anyone else.”

“Do I look towards her?”

I had to think carefully. I don’t wear the niqab, but I had to speak for the women who do.

“She is a citizen of the United States, and if she violates the law, then you have an obligation to remind her of that.”

“I will need to see her driver’s license if she is speeding.”

“Of course. We’re all equal under the law,” I concluded.

When I left the Agency to join a think tank, I conducted a study on female suicide bombers. I began to look closely at Iraq. From 2007 to 2011, there had been more than 50 attacks and the number was slowly rising. The question the U.S. military wanted to know is who were the women.

An officer in Baghdad kindly sent me a profiling report that indicated female suicide bombers in Iraq are young women between the ages of 18-25 and brainwashed by men.

This wasn’t entirely true. Some women were younger or older. A 16-year old suicide bomber Rania Ibrahim, who was arrested in August 2008, told my journalist friend Anita McNaught, “I did not want to kill.” The following year, Samira Ahmed Jassim appeared on Iraqi television to state that she recruited more than 80 women and masterminded more than twenty bombings.

Other conflicts in which women have been active participants reveal the same truth: profiling is an artificial security practice.

What’s The Good News?

More Muslims and agents of Arab descent are making a difference. An Egyptian-American based in Pittsburg told me he joined the FBI to represent his faith and protect his country. Agent Lebanese-American named George is taking small steps to reach Muslims in local communities across America to seek their assistance with law enforcement cases. And Imam Magid of the Adams mosque in northern Virginia received an award by the FBI for his cooperation.

farhana mo maj

But joining the FBI is not for everyone.

The best way to ensure racial profiling does not happen is to report it. This is something the FBI admits it needs to rework. In the past, complaints were mismanaged and could be misplaced. The Department of Justice is aware of its loopholes and aims to refine its organization to protect citizens, regardless of race.

As the debate continues, and the draft report is contested (as I’m sure it will be even by Muslims), I am reminded of these thoughtful words Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave 50 years ago:

“I say to America, that if you understand what consciousness is and if you understand the wrongness of racial profiling…you must do the right thing. Sometimes we must take positions because they are neither safe, nor popular, nor comfortable. But we must take those positions because our conscience tells us they are right.”

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  • About the autor
    Farhana Qazi

    Farhana Qazi is a fellow at The Center for Global Policy and an award-winning speaker on conflicts in the Muslim world. She is the author of a human-interest story titled "Secrets of the Kashmir Valley: My Journey Through the Conflict Between India and Pakistan." To learn more, visit her at

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