Monday, August 21, 2006

Flying while Muslim

By Pamela K. Taylor

With the horrors of war in Lebanon proceeding apace despite a cease fire and new terrorist threats emanating out of London and Toronto, two recent news items caught my eye.

One featured an American Muslim doctor who was required to deplane because his prayers frightened another passenger. The second was about two South Asian men who were speaking what some passengers thought to be Arabic and looking repeatedly at their watches (I know! No one without nefarious motives would look at their watch repeatedly as they waited to board a plane!) The passengers in this second case "mutinied" -- some refused to board or and others would not let the plane take off so long as the two men were among the passengers.

Eventually all three men had to get off their planes and wait for another flight the next day. To add insult to injury, the airlines did not simply reschedule them, as they normally do if you miss your flight; they had to pay extra airfare to take the next flight out of town.

It is really a sad day for us all, when government wartime rhetoric, media hysteria, and the actions of a few radicals make having dark skin and speaking a foreign language into a crime. We've seen it before (the Japanese and African Americans can tell us all about racial profiling), we've acknowledged before that it is wrong, and we know that this kind of racial profiling doesn't even work. Terrorists surely aren't going to call attention to themselves by praying or speaking in foreign languages, wearing distinctive clothing or large beards. The 9-11 bombers certainly didn't.

As Azhar Usman, a stand-up comedian who has a five inch beard, a swarthy complexion and does his routine in a kurta pajama outfit, says, "If I were a terrorist trying to sneak onto a plane, do you think I'd really be stupid enough to cultivate this look???"

We have to be vigilant, yes, but we also have to be smart. In fact, this kind of all-inclusive, knee jerk reaction to someone flying while Muslim is exactly the sort of fare that terrorist groups use to radicalize prospective members.

The war in Iraq, the callous disinterest in the loss of civilian lives and infrastructure in Lebanon, the demonization of Islam as a violent religion with irrational, violent adherents, all lay the foundations. The icing on the cake are incidents like the two mentioned in this article. You can almost hear the recruiter telling impressionable young men, "We can't even pray, or talk our own languages, in an airport, that's how much they want to strip our Islam from us!"

Terrorism presents challenges to us all -- to law enforcement who must track down and prevent incidents while maintaining civil rights, to Muslims, who must confront radicalism within the community while seeking justice for oppressed Muslims around the globe, and to non-Muslims, who must refrain from hysteria and learn how to distinguish the millions upon millions of peaceful muslims from the few who would resort to violence to attain their political ends.

It would behoove us to remember that there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If even 500,000 of them are inclined to terrorism, that still amounts to less than one half of 1 percent of the population. Chances are, any Muslim you meet, is going to be in the remaining 99.5 percent.

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