DETROIT – Some 16,000 Muslims from the United States are in Saudi Arabia this week to perform the hajj pilgrimage, one of Islam's most sacred experiences. If the hajj is performed with sincere intentions, Muslims believe it can wipe away past sins, purify the soul and alleviate worldly stresses.
This year, however, Muslims say they have never been more anxious traveling abroad than now, under the Trump administration's rules, which unleashed protests across the country and confusion at airports earlier this year.
Those performing the hajj say that while it's never been exactly stress-free to fly as a Muslim in America, the new climate under President Donald Trump has heightened anxieties about traveling to Saudi Arabia, where the hajj is performed. The hajj, which runs for five days and ends Monday, draws some 2 million people from around the world each year. All Muslims with the means to do so are required to make the pilgrimage at least once.
"We do find the anxiety level rising at this current time," said Sulaimaan Hamed, who operates Hajj Pros, an Atlanta-based company organizing hajj trips. "It is a reality with the heightened scrutiny."
Hamed, who is in his 17th year organizing the pilgrimages, has a client who opted not to take the trip this year. The West African native had renewed her green card because of a misspelling and the new document didn't arrive in time for traveling.
"She's fearing ... she might not be able to get back" into the U.S., Hamed said. "The environment of heightened scrutiny has her nervous enough. She's waiting until next year."
Shortly after taking office, Trump ordered a temporary ban on refugees and a travel ban affecting Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen, plus Iraq. His administration had also initially said citizens of those countries who hold permanent U.S. residency green cards would be barred from re-entering the country.
Trump said the controversial measures were needed to protect the U.S. from terrorists, but opponents said it was unfairly harsh and was intended to meet his campaign promise to keep Muslims out of the United States. Two months ago the Supreme Court partially lifted lower court injunctions against Trump's executive order, which no longer includes people from Iraq.
Abdull Warsame, a Somali-American who lives in Minnesota, is leading 420 people to hajj this year from the United States. His company, Mina Hajj Travel, consulted with an immigration attorney to address concerns before the trip.
He said only about three or four people chose to cancel their pilgrimage this year because they didn't want to deal with the unknowns the travel ban might bring if they are not allowed to return to the U.S.
Tussles in the courts over Trump's executive order, and the gradual dissipation of a ban on major electronics and laptops in cabins of flights from 10 mostly Muslim cities — including Jiddah, the main entry point for pilgrims on hajj — left many unsure about what their rights are while traveling.
"There is still a lot of confusion from travelers and we are hearing from people who are coming back from hajj and worried about what they will face at the border," said Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project at the ACLU, said there has been a rise in reported incidents of Muslim citizens and legal permanent residents being questioned inappropriately about their religious and political beliefs while traveling.
"This has happened under previous administrations, but we and colleague organizations have certainly seen a rise, at least in anecdotal accounts, of that kind of questioning and screening," she said.
Suehaila Amen, part of Michigan's large Arab American and Muslim community, had concerns when traveling to Lebanon earlier this year after the initial Trump order was issued.
Amen, who's on the hajj this year, says she always makes sure to fly internationally from Detroit because the Muslim community in Michigan has a good working relationship with government agencies there. It makes flying more comfortable, she said.
"I actually go out of my way to go through customs in Detroit and not anywhere else," she said.
To prepare Americans for traveling to the hajj, the Council on American-Islamic Relations conducted a webinar that discussed people's rights while traveling at customs, U.S. entry points and airport security checkpoints.
"We have tremendous rights as we travel, but these rights are only meaningful if you know them and understand them," CAIR Florida's Executive Director Hassan Shibly said during the webinar.
Some of the examples CAIR gave include the rights of female travelers to request a female TSA agent for pat downs and the right to request that the hijab, or head cover worn by Muslim women, not be removed in public.
CAIR's senior litigation attorney, Gadeir Abbas, told The Associated Press the Trump administration's conduct has heightened an already tense situation among Muslims, who have come to expect a certain level of extra scrutiny while traveling.
Abbas said the Trump administration has reintroduced the practice of placing U.S. Muslim citizens on a no-fly list while they're abroad and thus exiling them until they can successfully petition the government and courts to board a flight back home. He said the practice was first introduced under the Obama administration, but had disappeared since 2014.
After Trump took office, at least one person every month has been added to the no-fly list while abroad. Among those was a mosque leader, or imam, from Salt Lake City who was in Kenya to meet his wife and children over the summer. CAIR was able to litigate on his behalf and he was removed from the no-fly list. The imam is now leading a group of pilgrims for the hajj.
"It has never been more stressful to travel as a Muslim in America," Abbas said.
After all the preparations, Hamed the hajj tour operator said Muslims must step out in faith.
"We have to help them understand that God is greater, as is the obligation to fulfill your religious rite, than being scared of flying on an airplane or fearing what one may experience going through customs," he said.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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