(CNSNews.com) -- The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, saying, among other things, that authorities questioned Muslim Americans reentering the country from Canada about their personal habits of prayer.
"Upon information and belief, Defendants began implementing a policy or course of conduct under which Defendants ask Muslim American travelers attempting to re-enter the United States through the United States-Canada border at multiple international ports of entry a detailed list of questions about their religious beliefs and religious practices," says the complaint.
The complaint says one of these questions is: "How many times a day do you pray?"
On April 13, CAIR filed the lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Michigan against three federal agencies listed as defendants: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), both of which are components of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Justice’s FBI. (1 - Complaint and Jury Demand.pdf)
The four plaintiffs are identified as Muslim male U.S. citizens. They are Abdulrahman Cherri, Wissam Charafeddine, Ali Suleiman Ali, and Kheireddine Bouzid. The lawsuit claims that the plaintiffs’ First and Fifth Amendment rights have been violated. It also alleges that the federal government violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by “targeting and detaining Plaintiffs with a purpose of questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices.”
During an April 13 news conference, Charaffedine, who described himself as an educator, told reporters, “I’m detained for a few hours, treated like a criminal right when my passport is swiped; right away there is a panic situation. Officers come out. Sometimes I’m handcuffed, escorted to the building. I’m detained from anywhere between three hours--to the most one was eight hours--and questioned and searched thoroughly.”
“The same type of question is repeated time after time, including religious questioning,” said Charaffedine. “My faith is questioned. My type of activities is questioned. Everything in my wallet and my car are questioned.”
“It causes me psychological torture just to know that, okay, now I have to go through that and it’s unexpected. Nobody has an explanation, nobody knows how long it’s going to take,” he said.
Later, he added, “They all look oblivious, nobody knows what’s going on. It all looks like it’s coming from above. Everyone acts like they don’t have no authority to do anything. They just ask you to be patient.”
According to Dawud Walid, the director for CAIR in Michigan, individuals trying to reenter the United States through the northern border are not directly asked whether or not they are Muslim. Instead, he said that they are profiled based on their name, background, or physical appearance.
“We believe [that] is based upon their name. They see names that appear to be Muslim, they have some type of Arabic background or people whose physical appearance, you know, they have the appearance of wearing some type perhaps scarf,” Walid told CNSNews.com.
He said some individuals have been asked questions about their religious practices by the FBI after entering the country.
The FBI has “gone as far as to ask community members, you know, how they feel about our holy book Koran, including asking questions [on] their belief about specific verses,” said Walid. “Not only have they asked questions about, you know, prayer habits, what mosque do they attend, but the questions have even been specific.”
Some of the complaints date back as far as 2008 and some were made as recently as December 2011.
CNSNews.com asked Walid whether the number of complaints by Muslims about intrusive religious questioning at the northern border has increased in recent years.
Walid said the number has increased “within the last couple of years” under the Obama administration.
The CBP, TSA, and FBI did not comment on the specific allegations.
"CBP strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion. In determining whether individuals are admissible into the United States, CBP utilizes specific facts and follows the Department of Justice's ‘Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies,’” Jenny Burke, a CBP spokeswoman, told CNSNews.com, adding that she could not comment further.
The TSA and FBI declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, a TSA spokesperson told CNSNews.com that the agency “does not profile individuals by race, religion or ethnicity."
The lawsuit claims that DHS acknowledged that complaints were made, but said that the federal department lacks the authority to provide “remedies.”
“In a letter dated May 3, 2011 … Ms. Margo Schlanger, Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, DHS, stated that ‘Under 6 U.S.C. § 345 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000ee-1, our complaint process does not provide individuals with legal or procedural rights or remedies. Accordingly, this Office is not able to obtain any legal remedies or damages on your behalf or that of the above complainants,’” stated the lawsuit. (1 - Complaint and Jury Demand.pdf)
“If they say this behavior is going on, yet they can’t offer any remedies, then we’re forced to take the issue to federal court,” Walid told CNSNews.com.
In an e-mail statement, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the ranking-member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, told CNSNews.com, “These agencies are governed by strict federal guidelines that prohibit racial profiling and require that efforts to protect our national security are balanced with an expectation that our federal government conduct any investigations fairly and without unnecessary encroachment on civil rights.”
The offices of Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the subcommittee chair, and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) did not answer requests for comment before this story was posted.
According to the lawsuit, since November 2008, Charafeddine’s car has been “surrounded by armed CBP Agents” on multiple occasions when he reentered the U.S. from Canada.
The complaint states, “Defendants’ course of conduct or policy includes asking Muslim American travelers, at minimum, a fixed set of questions about their Islamic religious practices, which include, but are not limited to the following:
a. Which mosque do you go to?
b. How many times a day do you pray?
c. Who is your religious leader?
d. Do you perform your morning prayer at the mosque?”
“The questioning and treatment described above humiliates Muslim American travelers, such as Plaintiffs, and wrongfully stigmatizes them as violent threats based solely on a subjective assessment of their religious beliefs,” stated CAIR in the lawsuit.