Flying While Muslim: Religious Profiling
In this article, a Muslim-American was picked out of a crowd, “interrogated, finger printed” at an airport because of his ethnicity despite his taking every precaution against such acts by speaking in english, wearing Western clothes, and in his group, booking seats away from each other. His group was escorted off the plane after other passengers claimed they were suspicious. This kind of racial profiling in the United States happens unprovoked over ten years after 9/11 and is very similar to the profiling seen during the period following the attack at Pearl Harbor in which there were Japanese Internment Camps. Despite a westernized way of life for both groups of people, they are still discriminated against based on their skin color or religion.
Excerpt from “The Daily Beast” by Jessica Bennett
As a Muslim-American and president of the North American Imams Federation, Dr. Omar Shahin is no stranger to the heightened security of a post-9/11 world. On more than one occasion, the Phoenix, Ariz., resident says he’s been picked out of a crowd by the color of his skin—interrogated, finger printed or detained. So when Shahin headed to the airport Monday with five other imams for a flight out of Minneapolis—where the NAIF had met for a conference—the group did everything they could to avoid suspicion, according to Shahin. They wore Western clothes, he says. The men spoke only English. They didn’t book their seats together. And when it came time to conduct their sunset-time prayers, Shahin says, they did so quietly, and not all together—hoping to avoid any unwanted attention.
But when the group boarded their U.S. Airways flight bound for Phoenix, on which Shahin (a frequent flier on the airline) had been upgraded to first class, they would never leave the ground. After finding their seats and preparing for takeoff, Shahin and the other imams were escorted from the flight in handcuffs after a passenger handed a note to a flight attendant expressing concern over the group’s “suspicious activity,” according to the airport police report. The group was taken off the flight in handcuffs, and after several hours of questioning by federal authorities, released. But though the airline refunded their tickets, U.S. Airways—which released a statement Tuesday saying it does “not tolerate discrimination of any kind”—reportedly denied them passage on any of its other flights and refused to help them obtain tickets through another airline. “This was the worst moment in my life,” says Shahin, who, after an overnight delay, was able to get himself and his colleagues a flight on Northwest Airlines. “When they took us off the plane, six big leaders, it was very humiliating.” U.S. Airways told NEWSWEEK late Wednesday that it would not comment on the case beyond its issued statement.
What was the group’s suspicious activity? According to the report filed by the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport police, the group’s loud chants of “Allah, Allah, Allah,” initially drew the suspicion of nearby passengers—one of whom said he heard the imams make anti-American comments regarding the war in Iraq. Once on the flight, the men—who allegedly boarded the plane with no carry-on luggage and used one-way tickets—seated themselves in pairs, two at the front of the plane, two in the middle, and two in the rear (all according to the police report). The men, three of whom are U.S. citizens, two of whom have green cards and one who has a worker’s permit, also allegedly asked the flight crew for seat belt extensions.
But Shahin, a lawyer, disputes many of these details. He says everyone in the group had round-trip tickets that he had booked—and that he has the documentation to prove it. The reason he was at the front of the flight was because he was upgraded to first class because he’s a frequent flyer on the airline. And the reason he asked for a seatbelt extension? Shahin says his 290-pound frame should make that obvious. As for the anti-American remarks, Shahin says the group was talking about the conference, which, ironically, was focused on building bridges to the non-Muslim community. And to avoid this very type of incident, Shahin says he’d already notified both the F.B.I. and local Minneapolis police department of the NAIF conference, as a precaution, in hopes of avoiding any problems. “What they claim [in the police report] is just not true,” he says.
Shahir and the North American Imams Federation say they’ve consulted their lawyer, and have called for a boycott of U.S. Airways. They’re also being backed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based advocacy group that has demanded U.S. Airways launch an immediate investigation (which the airline says it has done) and has called on the U.S. Department of Justice and the Transportation Security Administration to conduct separate investigations of the incident. (CAIR says it has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties saying that it has opened a review of the case.) “Since 9-11, we’ve seen a great number of racial and religious ethnic profiling resulting in people being taken off airplanes summarily because they are Muslim,” said CAIR Legal Director Arsalan Iftikhar, who says the Imam case is another example of “flying while Muslim.” “Reactions like this to Muslims praying really strike at the heart of the fear and prejudice that’s still so prevalent in this country.”
This is at least the second time this year that U.S. Airways has removed a Muslim from a plane. In August, Rima Qayyum, a 28-year-old substitute teacher, was taken off a flight and detained for 14 hours at West Virginia’s Tri-State Airport when security officials reportedly mistook her facewash and bottled water for possible bomb-making ingredients. Nationwide, according to CAIR’s latest civil rights report, for 2005, complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discrimination have gone up 30 percent since the year prior. Additionally, for the second year in a row, the 1,972 reports received in 2005 mark the highest number of Muslim civil rights complaints ever reported to CAIR in its 12-year history.
Observant American Muslims—who must pray five times daily—are left with a dilemma. How do they maintain their religious faith without attracting attention in an environment of heightened fear? Some ask why they should be expected to change their behavior in a country that promises religious freedom. Amine Chigani, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, raises some of these questions—and more—in a Wednesday e-mail to CAIR: “Is there anything that I should do so I won’t have the same experience as our imams did?” she writes. “I mean, should I ask the plane crew while I get seated that I will need to pray at a certain time, or should I tell them during check in? Should I explain to the passenger next to me that I will be praying? And if the worst happens and they ask me to leave, should I? … I am willing to do anything to avoid [causing problems], except not to pray. Please advise!” Chigani is traveling to Seattle in December.
Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns and operates the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, says that everyone should have a right to pray, but that in this day and age, “people must be sensitive to how their actions might impact those around them.”
But Shahir says his group took every precaution possible. “That’s my question to the people,” Shahir says. “What more do I have to do? I am American, I speak this language, I do everything by the book and I’m still suspicious. I cannot change the color of my skin.”