There have been many times that I have gone on trips and was “Flying While Muslim.” What does that mean? Well, this expression has come to describe the reality of travel for all Muslims, non-Muslim Arabs, and anyone who looks like they could be from the Middle East or any other region of the world perceived as predominantly Muslim. After 9/11, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians became the target of racial and religious profiling that has resulted in longer waits in security and in some cases being removed from flights.
“Flying While Muslim” is also the name of a site launched this week about the case of the 6 imams who were removed from a US Airways flight on November 20, 2006, after a complaint from a passenger. Before boarding the plane, the six imams prayed one of the regular prayers in the terminal. They then boarded the plane and went to their assigned seats, with the exception of one of the imams who is blind and needed assistance. After they were removed from the flight, hours of interrogation revealed that they had done nothing wrong. The next day they returned to the airport to take another flight and were refused service again by US Airways. As a result of the humiliating experience, the six imams filed a discrimination lawsuit that is still in court.
When I first heard that story, I was particularly shocked because I was in another part of the country that same day, returning from a conference. Before boarding, I prayed in the terminal so that I would not miss the prayer. It is very typical for a Muslim who is traveling to pray in the airport before boarding a plane, so they do not miss a prayer and because of time differences. I suspect that too many share the imams’ experience rather than my non-eventful one.
As I am reminded of this case with the new website, it highlights for me the role that fear, stereotypes, and ignorance continue to play. The number of similar cases is not subsiding, and for me that is a serious problem. After 8 years, it is important to realize that 1.3 billion Muslims (at least) and those perceived as Muslim are not responsible for the actions of (literally) a few. It is also imperative that Muslim prayer not be perceived more negatively than prayer by any other adherent of any other faith. Prayer, whether Muslim or not, is an act of piety–in fact, a very peaceful act.
The imams’ continuing struggle is another example of how stereotypes and fear too often are the source of conflict. There have to be other ways to engage each other. Baba Ali, for example, and other comedians have tried to bring humor to the topic in order to create more understanding. In a Youtube video, Ali sheds light on the challenges Muslims face, especially in airports. There need to be more constructive ways like this to raise awareness, so that no one’s rights are lost and what happened to those 6 imams does not happen again.
What is your experience “Flying While Muslim”? Do you think religious profiling is necessary? Why? Are there other ways to make everyone feel safe? Please leave your comments.