August 19, 2006
The Canberra Times

Question for a profile puzzle: who could have picked them?

I don’t know what 23-year-old Cossor Ali looks like, but I can guess. Let’s see. I reckon she wears a thick, grey hijab tucked tightly around her face, with the peak shadowing a suspicious brow. She’s got dark, cold eyes with heavy lids, bushy unplucked brows, doughy complexion, no make-up, and pale dry lips. Her ugly flat sandals and grey socks poke out from under a long, black coat-dress, with hidden buttons. She’s sexless, humourless and dangerous.

Ten days ago Cossor Ali was seized in a massive police raid on her neighbourhood in Walthamstow, London.

We in the West can all guess what terror suspects like her look like.

We’ve got an even better idea – in our Western mind’s eye – of what her would-be-terrorist male friends look like: dark, short hair, thick bushy beard, decked out in a long white or grey Muslim galabiyya – with perhaps even a neat little kufi hat.

You and I may have never eyeballed any of the 22 young men and two women arrested in Britain over the foiled plot to allegedly blow up planes mid-flight between Britain and the United States – and yet we think we know them.

Maybe we can even pick them out in a crowd.

Britain’s former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, seems to think so. He wants security officers at airports to stop wasting time frisking you and me – and him. ”I’m a white, 62-year-old, six-feet four-inch, suit-wearing ex- cop,” he says. ”Do I really fit the profile of a suicide bomber?”

No doubt physical-education teacher Dot Stewart-Whyte doesn’t think her 20-year-old son Don fits the profile of a suicide bomber either. British police disagree. He’s one of the 24 in custody under suspicion of plotting to use liquid explosives, disguised in sports-drink bottles, to commit shocking acts of murderous mayhem.

But on the face of it, I wouldn’t have picked Don in a crowd.

Like his ₤1million-a-year supermodel half-sister Heather (once married to tennis star Yannick Noah), Don has sharp cheek bones, sexy eyes and good looks. Born a Christian to a dad who was active in the Conservative Party, Don was a classic grammar school boy right up until earlier this year – when he discovered Islam, made new friends, grew a beard and changed his name to his name to Abdul Wahid. Who would have picked it? Not me.

And who would have picked 26-year-old Oliver Savant, or 28-year- old Brian Young? Both are ”known associates” of Don’s and also in police custody. Like him they’re converts to Islam. Oliver now goes by the name of Ibrahim Savant, and Brian is Umar Islam. Who would have picked it? Not me. Perhaps not Brian’s mum either. And I’m guessing now, but I suspect not even 22-year-old Waheed Zaman’s mum thought her son was capable of plotting to kill. After all, he was a popular, ”charismatic” and ”quiet” boy, an outstanding medical student and head of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University. Who knows how ”quiet” he is now that he’s in police custody along with the other suspects?

The call by Sir John Stevens to profile aircraft passengers – to identify the likes of Don, Oliver and Brian, or the Waheed Zamans and even the Cossor Alis – has gained considerable traction since the latest round of British arrests. However, while the fear driving our urgent need to get tougher, smarter and sharper in the fight against terrorism is understandable, we are nevertheless in danger of feeding a problem. Not solving, or soothing it. To put it crudely, what Sir John and a growing chorus of ”authorities” want is to introduce ethnic, religious and cultural profiling that weeds out young Muslim men and women in any crowd. Although the cracks in such a course are obvious, the overall ramifications of such a preposterous suggestion don’t seem to have dawned on those who support this.

Even if we put Don, Oliver and Brian aside – along with Richard Reid the so-called ”shoe bomber” – ethnic profiling which targets young people of ”Asian” or ”Middle Eastern” appearance and Muslim inclination, still has a whopping hole in it.

In fact it probably has about 250 million holes in it – because that’s how many Arabs under the age of 25 live in the Middle East. This massive demographic is increasingly referred to as the ”youth bulge”. And it’s got Western authorities, law enforcers, politicians and academics in a hot sweat.

In a weighty report, Young Muslims and Extremism, jointly written by the British Home Office and Foreign Office in 2004, the alarm bells rang loud over a ballooning population of ”disaffected” young Muslim men, who are under- employed, bored, frustrated and ripe for ”radicalisation”. Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq was highlighted as possibly fuelling Muslim anger. The report suggested many Muslims may perceive a ”double standard” – Britain talking about ”democracy”, but oppressing and fighting certain groups of people to impose it. The need to crack down on possible terrorist suspects without further alienating the Muslim community was seen as a major and urgent challenge by the report’s authors. To that end, various education and communication programs, which aimed to involve and embrace the Muslim community, were conceived to win ”hearts and minds”, and to create greater cross-cultural understanding. Recently some of the Muslim leaders involved in that consultation told the BBC that though the initiatives ”were excellent”, there has not been enough follow-through.

Even if there had been a cross- cultural talk-fest and multicultural love-in at Cossor Ali’s neighbourhood centre, what’s to say it would have made any dent in her steel? Just as I think I’ve got her pegged, by virtue of her ”look” and some wildly irresponsible assumptions about her religion, no doubt she’s got me worked out too: a shameless, materialistic, Western racist – not to mention bigot. Of course I know she’s wrong. But put me in a profiling line-up and who could pick it?

Author and journalist Virginia Haussegger presents ABC television news in Canberra. This is the first of her exclusive new weekly columns.

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