LAHORE, Sept 5: An active interaction with those who enter or reside in the US is making country’s inland security authorities respect their religious, ethnic or racial sensitivities, ensuring full civil liberties and rights to them.
“Security at the ports of entry in America or in its cities is an issue, but we remain in touch with people of diverse origins to know what irritates or hurts them during security routines.
And the inland security authorities have adopted a lot of measures to cater to their sensitivities,” said Ehsan Zaffar who is a policy adviser at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Department of Homeland Security in Washington DC.
The US official of Pakistani origin was talking to Dawn upon conclusion of his visit to Lahore on Wednesday. He advised the secretary of Homeland Security and DHS components on the civil rights and civil liberties and implications of existing and proposed national security policies, programmes and procedures.Zaffar also heads department’s civil rights engagement initiatives with the Pakistani-American community. Additionally, he leads department’s efforts in implementing UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which seeks to eliminate discrimination in member countries on the basis of religion or belief. He is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and the State University of New York, where he teaches courses on civil rights, privacy and national security law and policy.
During his stay in Lahore he interacted with academics, human and civil rights activists, lawyers and students to allay their fears about security drills at US airports and civil liberties or rights there.
“I came here to know what they think of the US and to tell them how we are dealing with civil rights,” he said. Explaining how conditions have improved in America, he said the first step was to interact with people of all religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds and then try to work for a change in policy to address their concerns.
For example, security personnel at ports of entries would in the past toss Aab-i-Zam Zam, which every Muslim would carry after performing Haj, because of a lack of knowledge of its religious reverence for Muslims. He noted the reaction of this action and advised the homeland security to handle the water with respect. The holy water was still being checked, but with respect and was being allowed and there were no objections.
Previously, homeland security personnel would ask inappropriate questions, which visitors would find derogatory or shocking. For example, they would ask about their sects or ask why they were Muslims.
“After interacting with irritated and hurt people we told the authorities that such questions were not the issue of security. And this led to stoppage of the practice,” he said.
Another issue was checking of women wearing hijab or pagree (turban) of Sikhs as both these things carried religious and cultural values.
“Now, the system is changed. No one touches the pagree. Sikhs are asked to pat their pagrees themselves. Similarly, Muslim women wearing loose clothes or hijab are asked to themselves pat them if there is no woman officer to do that,” he said.
Mr Zaffar said around 55,000 security personnel serving at 200 airports were given training on how to respect the sensitivities of people. He contested the impression that security personnel could watch bodies of women through screening machines at airports.
“We have spent billions of dollars on replacing the screening machines that could generate fears of exposure of bodies, and on training the security personnel on how to respect religious or cultural sensitivities,” he said.When referred to the recently reported embarrassment of Pakistani politician Sheikh Rashid Ahmad at an airport in the US, Mr Zaffar said no one was humiliated during checking, but all were required to be screened irrespective of who they were.
“People are made to undergo additional screening at random and no one is specifically picked for the purpose. Those who have gone through such screening include world celebrities,” he clarified.
Talking about civil rights or liberties of people of different origins in America, he said after the 9/11, cases of discrimination were reported, and they still existed, but the administration never tolerated such cases.
“We filed and won a court case allowing Muslims to build a mosque in Tennessee after finding certain people disallowing it,” he said. He said the US administration was actively addressing all kinds of hate crime or bigotry, as it had an obligation to enforce law that forbade discrimination on the basis of cast, creed, colour or nationality.
Finally when asked what he thought of Pakistanis, he said they could be worried about their basic needs yet they continued to fight for their rights. “Media is very active now telling people what their rights are,” he said.