My Blind Date With The Federal Bureau of Investigations

 

We live in a tumultuous world were fantastic events can impact the daily realities of ordinary citizens. Events unfold before our eyes that can forever tarnish our sense of perception if we’re not careful. These are the words that come to mind as I had my interview with the FBI this afternoon. From their side, they may see an incident that raises suspicions, whether they’d like them to be raised or not. On my end of the deal, being scrutinized by the government can be a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Fortunately for both parties involved, we had a few laughs and then went on about our ways. If only all such encounters between divergent parties could be so humorous.

The back story to this short and simple. Recently, for a class assignment, I had photographed some public transportation installations belonging to SEPTA, including a trolley, the trolley tunnel, and the trolley tracks. I can imagine I hear chuckles already – as well we should all chuckle! The following day, I exited the same trolley stop [the same stop I use every day to go to work] only to be greeted by three separate law enforcement agencies: SEPTA, UPenn police, and the Philadelphia Police Department. My initial thought was that they were, “really after someone”, as they were out in force. Little did I know they were looking for me. A brief search ensued, in which I was searched, my contents were searched and then I was questioned by the officers present. After about 15-20 minutes, my story was confirmed and cleared that I was simply a student doing class work and that my appearance had, “raised some red flags”. The officer in question nearly blushed as he apologized, fully aware of what his words were implicating. I laughed with him to diffuse the situation and informed him I understood and that he was only following his procedures. I was discharged there shortly thereafter and thought that the incident was behind me. Little did I know I had popped up on an even bigger radar.

The story unfortunately does not get much more intense from here. The following day, I received a phone call from a detective at the FBI asking if he might schedule an interview with me. Slightly alarmed, I asked what it was he was curious about, at which he explained that he had been informed by the local authorities of the “SEPTA incident”, and that he would like to gather some more information. I agreed and proceeded to seek advice as to how to proceed. It’s not every day that one has a blind date with the FBI.

Through the help of a friend, I contacted the ACLU [of which I would urge other Muslims to consider supporting as this is a wonderful institution], who graciously provided me with an attorney from one of Philadelphia’s top law firms. I spoke with my attorney, who gave me sound counsel and with his advice in hand, we prepared for our meeting. The interim time between the phone call and the interview was filled with nervous speculation. What was it they could want from me? I lead a boring life of blogs and books. Yes, I’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia but so do many other people. Could that be it? Are they fishing for something? Soon enough I would have my answers.

I met with my attorney an hour before the interview and went over various points in detail to prepare myself for any questions they FBI might have. We were prepared for a full-court press. My tie was ironed, my blazer pressed. I was ready. At 11am sharp my phone rang. It was the detective. He said that “they” were ready to meet me. “They”, I thought. There was no mention of more than one officer. Despite this surprise, I put on my poker face and proceed to the interview.

From here, the story concludes with a small chuckle and then fizzles out. Both detectives were courteous and cordial. In the span of about three or four minutes, they asked me much of the same questions the local law enforcement officials had asked: what was I taking pictures of? Why? I provided proof of student ID and explained my course work. The next part was the most uncomfortable part and yet the most humorous – and in that order for the agent and myself. He asked where I was born and then my nationality. I informed him I was born in the United States and that I was African-American. Our eyes met for a moment and then I burst out with a short laugh and said, “I’m not from the Middle-East”. The detective, who seemed exceedingly happy to have made it over this uncomfortable hump replied, “Well, I wasn’t trying to imply anything but you know…, these days. We get a lot of phone calls about Middle-Eastern guys. It takes up a lot of our time”. Myself, my attorney, and the two agents all shared a laugh at how uncomfortable this post-9/11 situation has made people and the types of social avenues it can force us to go down. In short, the detectives were nice people who were only following Bureau procedures and in no time flat I was seeing them and my lawyer to the door.

In conclusion – cooperate. We live in times where many may feel that their liberties are being infringed upon and that’s why we have organizations like the ACLU. And yet, there are realities on the ground, whether we like them or not, and only but talking with one another can we hope to understand each other’s goals and objectives better. And yes, I am glad I’m a black guy! What a civil liberty that’s turning out to be.

16 Comments My Blind Date With The Federal Bureau of Investigations

  1. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    @Jonathan – thanks, man. Yeah, my wife wasn’t crazy about the idea of being questioned and we knew nothing of where it might lead and what would come of it. I’m sure her nerves were wracked a bit – nothing a good cheese steak can’t cure!

    @Abu Noor – Salaams and thanks. I’ll try and address some of your questions.

    there may indeed be some cases such as this where a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up with an honest conversation WITH the advice and presence of an attorney

    Which was my case indeed. I would not counsel anyone to proceed with any such conversations without legal counsel – hence the part about me getting help from the ACLU so that I can cooperate.

    But to assume that all or most FBI agents are simply sincere people with good intentions would be a disaster.

    I made no such assumptions. I am merely commenting on the reality that our community is under scrutiny – and that within that scrutiny, you can have a somewhat humorous encounter as I did. It was also allowed to be humorous in that I had an attorney present. I am not saying yay or nay as to their intentions but rather commenting on the atmosphere that the whole post-9/11 mania has created. Case in point, a light-skinned Blackamerican is thought to be of Middle-Eastern descent because people are looking for people of Middle-Eastern descent. As a kid [i.e., before 9/11 or post-9/11], I was never mistaken as Middle-Eastern and I grew up near Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the largest populations of Arabs outside the Middle East.

    they are part of a process that is unjust and is used to persecute Muslims

    Perhaps – in some cases certainly but I don’t think it would be fair to make this a blanket accusation.

    I’m a little unclear about the part of the story where you and the agents share a laugh about racial profiling and national origin discrimination…what are we supposed to take from that?

    Take from it what you will. I/we found it amusing because on one hand, the FBI is looking into “terrorist activity”, and yet, they were shy as to directly inquire about my ethnicity due to the idea of that being inappropriate. As the detective explained to me, he did not want to be “offensive”. I personally, find some humor in that as did everyone in the room. Perhaps you had to be there. As for me being Muslim, it was assumed, rest assured. Again, that was part of the whole “joke”, if you will. And that after confirming that I was indeed Muslim but not Middle Eastern, that seemed to take me off of their radar.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that if you had been of a different ethnicity it would have somehow been appropriate for these “nice guys just doing their job” to continue to question you

    I agree with you here. It would have been most unfortunate and I’m sure that those unfortunate people that have been Arab/Middle-Eastern and thus in being so, could take the questioning to “Round Two”, is not right. Nonetheless, I found it bewildering and amusing in a fashion – as did my attorney and the two detectives – as if we were all laughing at some inside joke that none of us could fully articulate yet we all understood.

    Like I said…, maybe you’d just have to have been there.

  2. wordlush@gmail.com'Jonathan C

    Man…you got me worried.
    This shows a lot of maturity on your part and the way you handled it.
    I did notice one core detail missing from all of this. You said you consulted with friends, the ACLU, an attorney, and the like, but I’m wondering what advice you got from your wife on the matter!
    I’m guessing that was equally important in your decision on how to proceed.

    I’m glad you made it through unharmed. But surely you will, unfortunately, be in the FBI data base forever…although I bet you were already there even before this incident.

  3. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    As salaamu ‘alaykum Marc,

    Alhamdulillaah I am glad everything turned out okay and I could not agree with you more about Muslims supporting the ACLU and other fine organizations which have stood on principle and been helpful to the community for many years, but especially since 9/11.

    However, if your advice to “cooperate,” referred not only to cooperating with each other and with groups like the ACLU but was meant to advise people to cooperate with the FBI or other law enforcement groups, I disagree strongly. Obviously every person has to decide for himself what is best in a particular situation and there may indeed be some cases such as this where a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up with an honest conversation WITH the advice and presence of an attorney. But to assume that all or most FBI agents are simply sincere people with good intentions would be a disaster. I’m not going to judge the internal intentions or thought processes of large groups of people I don’t know and I’m sure in their minds most of them think they are doing God’s work but they are part of a process that is unjust and is used to persecute Muslims.

    Also, I’m a little unclear about the part of the story where you and the agents share a laugh about racial profiling and national origin discrimination…what are we supposed to take from that? Did they ask you or did you offer that you were Muslim? I understand that you are pointing out the irony that being Black was a benefit to you in this situation with law enforcement but still I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that if you had been of a different ethnicity it would have somehow been appropriate for these “nice guys just doing their job” to continue to question you.

  4. aethereal@aol.com'Titus Heagins

    Marc…I am glad this was resolved in a reasonable manner. For years, after 9-11, I was searched several times each time I flew. A black baggage handler finally told me my name came up on their list of people to give “additional services” to when they checked in for flights. I suppose it was due to my travel to Cuba, or my radicalism during the Vietnam War, but I always thought I had an FBI file. As a fellow photographer, I am aware of what I think of as normal can heighten suspicions of people. The world we live in is crazy, from both sides of the track!! Most of all I am glad you kept your cool.
    Titus

  5. safia_234@hotmail.com'Safia

    Salaam,

    Glad everything worked out, very smart to have an attorney with you! I’m curious, could you go into a little further detail about the ACLU part? How did they decide to provide an attorney? What’s the process?

  6. teachernaeem1@yahoo.com'Khidhir Naeem

    if you were two shades darker they would’ve shot you and then went to work on you with 26 bullet holes in your back they would’ve called it the worst case of suicide post 9/11. you see brother always remember “Allah got this wrapped up” so go home open up your Keetab and do the right thing.

  7. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    I get what you’re saying, although I think we have a different perspective on the FBI as a whole, but that’s not surprising.

    Perhaps – or perhaps not quite so much as you think.

    I also find the idea that they would not be interested in pursuing you simply because you are Blackamerican (especially since you are Muslim) to be strange since the FBI has entrapped many Blackamerican Muslims

    Well…, yes and no. You see, as they even explained it to me, they’re “looking” for Middle-Eastern men. It’s not that by being black that I’m of no interest to them, especially as I’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia, but that I may not be the highest-value target.

    Remember the weird guys in the warehouse in Miami?

    Yeah – but I’m not weird. I’ve got too much style to be weird. 🙂

    But seriously, while what you say certainly has some value to it, I would make the case that [for the time being], Islam in the Blackamerican experience has a bit more normalcy to it given that out of all the racial/ethnic groups that comprise the Muslims in America, Blackamericans are the only ones who are seen as both validly Muslim and validly American. Arabs/Desi’s – valid Muslims but valid Americans? Questionable at best. Whiteamerican converts? Valid Americans? Yes. Valid Muslims? No. At least as far as public imagination goes.

    My two cents and I borrowed them both from Allah.

  8. malik_ryan@yahoo.com'Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    Marc,

    Thanks for the reply. I get what you’re saying, although I think we have a different perspective on the FBI as a whole, but that’s not surprising.

    I also find the idea that they would not be interested in pursuing you simply because you are Blackamerican (especially since you are Muslim) to be strange since the FBI has entrapped many Blackamerican Muslims and actually even more so pseudo-Muslims post 9/11. Remember the weird guys in the warehouse in Miami? There are also some Blackamerican Muslims espeically among those who have travelled overseas who have been convicted of crimes and there is a lot of fear mongering in some circles about radical Islam in the Blackamerican community.

    Allaah Knows best.

  9. margari.hill@gmail.com'Margari Aziza

    Here’s my two cents:
    Marc’s right, initially I was concerned about the interview. I worried that there might be a McCarthyesque pressure to name names or to ask us about people we knew. I thought that they could have been fishing for information about the local communities. Since we haven’t done anything illegal or wrong and we don’t know any people committing illegal activities or know of any supporting terrorism or engaging in any terroristic activities, I knew that the interview would not yield any useful information besides the fact that my husband is a law abiding citizen.

    In popular perception, Black American Muslims are seen as less likely to support terrorism or be high enough in the ranks in international terror networks to be of use as a material witnesses. But, as of late, Black Americans in Philly have been on the radar in terms of criminal networks via “jihadis in the hood” or “radicals among us” with the whole notion of prison Islam and ghetto masajid as being an incubator for militant Muslims.

    Being an American citizen is the greatest protection against what the authorities can do. Right after 9/11, I knew of several international students from Saudi Arabia who were hauled off to jail for weeks. But the half American half Saudi kids who pulled out their US passport just got a few questions. One guy mentioned he was so glad to bring up his Mexican American heritage. Similarly, being Black in the Middle East is an asset. My Muslim identity was never in question and people didn’t go around suspecting I was some spy or something.

    I think it is so easy to talk about agencies like the FBI as being some oppressors, just like it is easy to talk about the police force as an oppressive arm of the state. That is until you have to call 9/11, like I’ve done in the past, to report a break in or a robbery while you are at home. Are they oppressors when they are protecting your families? That is not to say that police brutality doesn’t exists. But I think it gets us nowhere to talk about the power of the state and reform with that type of rhetoric. The reality is that the FBI has worked to thwart interstate crimes such as child pornography and drug trafficking, as well plots of violence against unarmed civilians. Truth is, there are some nuts that are out there (Muslim, Christian, atheist, whatever). Years ago, I was threatened by skin heads because I stood up to what they were saying in class. My biggest concern are the home grown terrorists, those militia groups who have stockpiled weapons from gun shows. I’m not the only one to note that they have a similar anarchistic rhetoric as al-Qaeda.

  10. yursil@gmail.com'Yursil

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim
    Salamu’alaykum,

    I too was interviewed by the FBI after Sept 11th. In fact the story was republished in a few media outlets. The agents were pleasant enough when they interviewed me, but what led up to it was not at all acceptable.

    As far as saying and laughing about how you are “not from the Middle East”, I guess you are right and you had to be there because I just don’t get it.

  11. swiftlytumblingweed@hotmail.com'Brooke

    Asalamu Walaikum Bro,
    It’s a little disturbing that you and the Mrs aren’t blogging considering the timing of you “missing’ being so close to your date. I hope all is well with you both.
    I wanted to chime in on couple things. As a visibly identifiable Muslim, I would not consider photographing something like a transportation structure or such. You know the Muslims are known to blow these kinds of things up–literally–so though I think it would be unfortunate since I am an artist and hate that my view is stifled, that is just the current reality. So I am wondering if you are being a bit naive to think that your being a certain kind of Muslim is going to help you “get off.” You are Muslim. You are male. You are a college student. You “surveyed” a transportation structure. These are some of the demographics of some of the people that have committed terrorist acts, ya know. Had you been a Christian/Agnostic/Buddhist/Whatever-else co-ed maybe you would get a hand wave, but you aren’t and you didn’t.
    Also the comment about Whiteamerican Muslims not being seen as validly Muslim caught my attention. I think there is some credence to that amongst sisters, it is nearly always assumed that we converted for an Arab man or Blackamerican man or maybe even a Pakistani man, but I didn’t think that white brothers also had their Muslimness questioned. The first two bros to come to mind are Hamza Yusuf (he’s Muslim enough to represent with the president) and then the kid who converted and trained to be a jihad in Afghanistan-his Muslimness also seemed unquestionable.
    So I’m curious about how you (and prolly others) perceive Whiteamericans, especially males, as not being valid Muslims? Perhaps you see it as a wanna-be kind of thing?
    Again, I pray you and your family is well. Give us a post, eh?
    Love and Peace

  12. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    It’s a little disturbing that you and the Mrs aren’t blogging considering the timing of you [sic] “missing” being so close to your date.

    We’re ok, just taking some time out to enjoy being newlyweds as well as reexamining this whole blogging thing.

    I am wondering if you are being a bit naive to think that your being a certain kind of Muslim is going to help you “get off.”

    Well, I don’t know if I “got off” but they did seem to lose immediate interest as soon as it became apparent I was Blackamerican.

    As for the naive part, I will say this: Should I not walk down the street where say, white women walk in the suburbs, because they may have prejudices towards black men being criminals and rapists? As you say, it is an unfortunate truth to the fact that some Muslims do blow things up [as well that some black men are criminals and racists – but not all!], lending a kind of shady credibility to their claim of which they conflate into a policy. My answer to both of the above is no! I will walk where I have right to and photograph where I have right to. I will not be coerced into behaving in a manner just to appease the dominant culture. With that said, of course I am sensitive to certain issues and will behave appropriately in those situations.

    The first two bros to come to mind are Hamza Yusuf (he’s Muslim enough to represent with the president) and then the kid who converted and trained to be a jihad in Afghanistan-his Muslimness also seemed unquestionable.

    To us, Hamza Yusuf is certainly Muslim enough because we know he’s Muslim. But to the broader society, they do look at him thinking, “Hey, man, what’s going on? You’ve changed your name, you’ve donned some bed sheets and turban” – i.e., you don’t look like a white person any more!!” And as for John Walker-Lindh, he most certainly is questionable! And why? The boy had to go alllllll the way off to Validation-stan/Afghanistan just so he could feel he was Muslim because he was never taught to/how to look at his own cultural backdrop as a confirmation of his Muslim’ness.

    So I’m curious about how you (and prolly others) perceive Whiteamericans, especially males, as not being valid Muslims?

    Here you have completely misunderstood me. I have never stated that Whiteamericans are not validly Muslim. I am saying that they, as well as many other American Muslims [black, white, Latino…] have in a sense, been colonized by foreign-minded Muslims/Islam and thus have had to find a means of expressing their Islam that reinforces those foreign perspectives and appeasing them versus doing to first, with expressing an Islam that will pleasing to Allah and faithful to the Sunnah of the Prophet [s], as well as appeasing some elements from their own cultural backgrounds.

    I recommend you take a bit more time to read through my writings before making reactionary comments that reveal more about your own insecurities as a [white I’m guessing?] Muslim. Upon doing so, you’ll see that I’m on your side.

  13. arman.chowdhury@burthill.com'arman

    Mmmm…. I am dissappointed that certain of us has to go through this type of ordeal, because of our looks. Then again, some have ‘hijaked’ our religion and have conducted themselves upon others in such we that now the rest of the world looks at us with suspicion. Being a student of structure, I for one know that 911 is a farce (why did WTC 7 come down without being hit by any thing or without any significant fire & in total 7 second collapse? where is the fire that brought the towers down, why were there sounds of detonated explosions and why did the tower fall in free fall which is structurally not possible unless this was a detonated implosion…btw there were those jack ass terrorist who were in actuality manipulated by chenney, mossad group through a fraction of pakistani ISI ) and this orchestrated lie has been pinned on this religion becuase we as muslims have never significantly condemned the acts of these groups previously. We have never taken care of our own, ( the whites will fight tooth & nail for their kind), never have invented any thing significant (forget about what we did during the medieval ages, nowadays we absolutely suck) and when i look into our youth , i see mischief and no intelligence. Our muslim governments are most corrupt and most of all, for the middle east conflict i foremost blame the saudis who has had the clout to bring this conflict to an end long time back.

    the whites and israellis are doing a good job looking after their interest and it is us, the muslims, who in general are never cooperating as a nation, never excelling in education or in invention, or in supporting our own. half of our population is handicapped because we have the wrong interpretation of Islam regarding women, their education & their work place. some times i wonder who that Wahab guy was and show him how his teachings has handicapped this true religion of God.

    so as long as we don’t get our act right and have our own reference, our own advancements, we will always be made ‘Bakra’ by others like we were made in 9/11. those who have the capacity, be leaders in your profession and field and always contribute in our society so that our youth can be smart & motivated. And we have to do our part to make sure that we give better oportunity to our proceeding generation, for i don’t want to be part of the generation that will fail like our preceeding one.

    I look for the day that we as muslims have done so good and contributed so well to society and each other that marc manley’s of this world don’t have to go on a ‘ blind date’ with the FBI for his ethnic look.

  14. swiftlytumblingweed@hotmail.com'Brooke

    I didn’t think we were taking sides, just expanding our understandings. And I also don’t think that you are questioning anyone’s Muslimness, I am curious about your perception of the American public’s perception as I think yours is probably different than mine and together they get closer to a semblance of truth–or at least interesting.
    I hadn’t fully considered the validity of American Muslimness to the American public, though I have frequently expressed that in my experience the parents of converts often see Islam as a “stage” the person is going through and are eager to see it pass. I have personally seen this amongst Black American, White American and Native American families. Still, prior to my coming into the deen I had only known about Islam from being exposed to Black Muslims and I think/thought some Black American families may be more accepting, but I’m not sure about that. Personally, I seem to receive far more respect from AAs than whites–actually I think people of color in general are more respectful. Even amongst my white friends who insist their families are respectful, I have seen their families’ behaviors to indicate otherwise.
    Re the Hamza and John examples, I think we Muslims may think one way, but like I said Hamza was asked to represent with the president and John was treated like an American apostate. Actually, I read a strange write up in some Christian publication when Mattson’s was newly appointed to ISNA and the writer made a comment that Mattson was a more appropriate fit for an American Muslim organization than a man of Pakistani origin. Wow.
    Also, my husband and I have had many convos about how Muslim men have “passed” much more easily than women in hijab, but that has all changed in the last few years. I hear many brothers now expressing problems with finding employment the same way sisters in scarves do. Not that brothers of color were previously being swept into the marketplace, but things have gotten markedly worse.
    Regarding change in personal behaviors–I live in a big hunting state and have been itching to take my boys to some of the various shooting events, but ultimately I really don’t want to draw anymore unwanted attention to myself and my family. And I do hate feeling like that because I really was fooled into believing something that just isn’t true. I’m not insecure—I’m mildly pissed off, but I’m getting over it–Inshallah.
    Love and Peace

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *