I didn’t realize how often Muslims get kicked off planes, until it happened to me

A humiliating experience opened my eyes to discrimination that has become common in post-9/11 America under the pretext of safety and security. Photograph: Courtesy of Niala Mohammad Khalil

A humiliating experience opened my eyes to discrimination that has become common in post-9/11 America under the pretext of safety and security. Photograph: Courtesy of Niala Mohammad Khalil

A recent news report documented the removal of two Muslim women working for the federal government from an American Airline flight. On its surface the airline staff appeared to be upholding safety regulations, but in reality they were engaging in discriminatory practices. I know this to be true because I was one of the two women. We were removed from the plane for doing nothing more than requesting water and asking why we were still aboard an idling plane for more than five hours.

Although the incident was humiliating it was also eye-opening. Until it happened to me, neither my friend nor I had realized how common this trend had become. Passengers are removed from an aircraft for benign reasons such as asking for a beverage, a child harness, speaking a foreign language, changing orupgrading seats, taking pictures, making videos, or questioning a long delay. It isn’t just about what happened to me – increasingly Muslims are a part of a cycle of discrimination that targets them due to their appearance.

American Airlines states that they prohibit “discrimination of any kind” and ensure that their “policies require that we treat all our customers in a fair and courteous manner and discrimination due to race, ethnicity, religion, or skin-color is not tolerated”. However, this was not reflected in the treatment that I and other passengers received.

Shan Anand, a young, turbaned, Sikh man along with three of his Muslim friends were removed from an American Airlines flight traveling from Toronto to New York earlier this year. When I asked Shan why he thought he and his friends were removed from the flight he said: “We know why it happened, right? There were four of us, three are Muslim and I am Sikh.” When Shan and his friends asked American Airlines why they were removed, they were told: “There were inconsistencies of their behavior traveling as a group.” But the explanation made no sense to Shan – he was traveling in a group of six with two Latinos, three South Asians and one Arab, yet only the South Asians and Arab were removed. Shan and his travel companions were told that “the crew felt unsafe”.

“Unsafe”: a trigger word commonly used as an excuse by airlines under the pretext of ensuring safety and security post-9/11. Nearly all Muslims have at some point been subject to secondary security screening selection, but being thrown off a plane was an entirely new level of humiliation for me.

Measuring discrimination

Khurram Ali, the former civil rights director for the Council on American-Islamic Relation’s (CAIR’s) New Jersey chapter, explains that the pilot of an aircraft is given a list of those passengers that are marked with the infamous SSSS on their boarding pass. The SSSS or *S* indicates someone needs to be scrutinized a bit further by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). And although it is unknown if airline attendants have access to the names labelled SSSS by TSA on domestic flights, they do have access to their respective airline computer reservation system, which details passenger name and detailed information.

Although there is no published criteria used to select passengers for “random selection” or “suspicion”, Ali says: “It is happening to more and more people who are considered visibly Muslim.” Ali documented 27 airline discrimination complaint cases with three of those being “pulled off” or airline removal cases for CAIR’s New Jersey chapter during his short tenure. But as he pointed out, those numbers come nowhere near the amount being documented by CAIR on a national level.

CAIR has been fairly thorough in its documentation of discrimination against American Muslims, however it is still in the process of aggregating data regarding Muslim airline passengers being “pulled off” planes. Corey Saylor, CAIR’s director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia, acknowledged that they “are seeing more airline cases”. But in regards to statistics, Saylor stated: “We do not have stats as of yet. We are working on it.”

The only cases the public is aware of are those documented in the media. I counted nine airline passenger removal cases involving American Muslims published in the media over the past 13 months. But if that isn’t indicative enough, just look at trending hashtags on social media like #FlyingWhileMuslim to understand and confirm the reality of rising discrimination.

The official reasons for removal of these passengers are all in relation to safety and security concerns. But there is no mistaking this trend toward discrimination of Muslims.. Here are a few examples:

  • Mohamed Ahmed Radwan made the flight attendant feel “uncomfortable” when he asked her why she called him out over the public tannoy with the words “I will be watching you”. (American Airlines, December 2015)
  • Shan Anand (quoted above), a turbaned Sikh man, and three of his Muslim friends were removed for making the airline attendant and captain “feel uneasy” after they upgraded their seats. (American Airlines, December 2015)
  • Khairuldeen Makhzoom, a Berkley student, was removed after he was heard saying the phrase “inshallah” in Arabic at the end of a telephone conversation. (Southwest Airlines, December 2015)
  • Hakima Abdulle, a hijabi woman, made her aircraft flight attendant “feel uncomfortable” after switching seats with another passenger. (Southwest Airlines, April 2016)
  • Mohamad and Eaman Shebley (also hijabi) along with their three children were removed from their flight due to a “safety of flight issue” after asking for a child harness for their toddler. (United Airlines, April 2016)
  • Nazia (hijabi) and Faisal Ali, a young couple, were removed for making the flight crew feel “uneasy” because her husband was sweating, saying Allah and texting. (Delta Airlines, July 2016)

Many instances have gone undocumented due to fear of victims being further targeted, labeled troublemakers and being put on a “no-fly” list. The silent acceptance of these incidents has enabled airlines to dismiss the arbitrary treatment of select passengers as compliance with airline security regulations post-9/11. This policy is not effective and ultimately makes Americans feel marginalized in our own country.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, or Mark for those that have trouble pronouncing his name, recalls his experience with Southwest Airlines as “tearful and humiliating”. Makhzoomi came to America after his father was executed in Iraq by Saddam Hussain: “I experienced dictatorship in Iraq and now I am experiencing it in the freest country in the world.”

The discrimination Khairuldeen faced in Oakland, California, was anything but subtle. Khairuldeen detailed how he was removed from the aircraft, questioned by airline representatives and security, cornered against a wall, searched, sniffed by dogs in public and later interrogated privately by the FBI. Southwest Airlines representative and the authorities that removed him from the plane berated him for having spoken Arabic aboard the aircraft. Khairuldeen recalled the Southwest Airlines representative, stating: “Why would you speak that language knowing the environment in an airport?”

Khairuldeen said: “I was excited because we were talking about my upcoming graduation from UC Berkley, saying ‘inshallah’. You know, we use this word 30 to 40 times in any given conversation.” The rest of Khairuldeen’s conversation revolved around what they served for dinner at an event he attended which hosted the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon. “I was telling my uncle that they served us chicken, mash potatoes and spinach for dinner at the event,” said Makhzoomi. Yet the authorities that escorted him and claimed to understand Arabic, accused him of “discussing martyrdom” in his telephone conversation.

An atmosphere of fear

Cenk Uygur, political commentator and co-founder of the Young Turks, believes that this issue goes beyond discrimination towards Muslims in particular. Uygur was also kicked off of an American Airlines flight but he doesn’t believe it was because of religion. “Was it religious? In my case, I don’t think it was racially motivated.” Uygur believes that the root of the matter boils down to power and compared airline attendant behavior toward Muslims since 9/11 to police officers abusing their authority and using excessive force on African Americans. “After 9/11 airlines/flight attendants have taken up the ‘I can do whatever I want attitude’ in the name of security,” Uygur says. “In my opinion, the core of the problem is flight attendants are given unlimited power and they tend to abuse it. They tend to use their power on those they perceive to be powerless. And unfortunately in America, the darker the skin color the more powerless you are. And many Muslims tend to fit in that category.”

He adds: “By the way, it’s much harder on women, because they are more visibly Muslim and they often bear the brunt of the burden of Islamophobia or discrimination.

“Donald Trump has given people permission to be Islamophobic and told them that it’s okay to discriminate against Muslims. Trump basically says, ‘If I become president I will systematically discriminate against them [Muslims],’” Uygur says.

Likewise, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi attributed the recent rise in discrimination towards Muslims to Donald Trump, saying, “Trump is using ‘Islamophobia’ to rise to political power.”

Trump’s statements have fostered and further instigated an atmosphere of fear and prejudice towards the estimated 6-7 million Muslims in America.

I’m an American, and being labeled a safety threat is unacceptable in a country founded on tolerance and freedom.

(The article was first published in the Guardian)

By Niala Mohammad Khalil

The writer is a Multimedia Broadcast Journalist at Voice of America (VOA)

THE PASHTUN TIMES

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