Flying while Muslim: One Imam's perspective

O'Hare International Airport Terminal 1 Gate C

Utterly humiliating.

That's what FWM or Flying While Muslim feels like. By now, you've probably read about the November 21, 2006 incident where six Imams were kicked off a US Airways flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and handcuffed. This was done on the request of a passenger who was uncomfortable with them praying before they boarded and saying "Allah...Allah," among other things.

About a week ago, I was returning from France, where I was grilled or 30 minutes or more at the airport. I was told I was traveling on a one-way ticket, which I was not. They had computers to check that and my ticket had that information as well. But this was not enough for those two officers. I was asked to produce used stubs and tickets of each segment of my trip including of a short train ride. Thank God I had all of that still in my pockets.

Then I was asked why I was in the country. I mentioned a meeting with a French minister. That was a mistake. They wanted proof of it. Unfortunately, I had misplaced the minister's business card. That resulted in a search of every single item I was carrying, all in full view of other passengers. It was like standing in front of others with no privacy, trying to prove the legitimacy of your existence.

Such is the crime of being a brown, bearded Imam just trying to get back home. Such is the crime of Flying While Muslim.

Islamophobia creates conditions ripe for FWM

Last month, President Bush started talking about the Khilafah or Caliphate as it is known in English, presenting it as if it is a dirty concept. Muslims have had both good and bad Khalifas in our history. But the way it was expressed, it led to not only further misunderstanding about Islam, but fear as well.

Just before the airport incident, 33 Imams from ten cities were rounded up on immigration-related charges. The religious worker visa program according to a 2005 review by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is riddled with problems. Homeland Security officials found fraud in one of every three religious visas they reviewed. In a number of cases, churches that sponsored the workers turned out to be non-existent, workers could not be found and addresses could not be verified.

But it wasn't priests and churches they went after. It was Muslims, who probably make up about one percent of total religious visa holders. I wonder when the department is going to exclusively raid Catholics priests or Jewish rabbis. Why did they not randomly choose 100 places of worship or 1,000 visa recipients instead of focusing exclusively on Imams and mosques.

According to a study released in September 2006 by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research group at Syracuse University, in the eight months ending May 2006, the Justice Executive Office of US Attorneys declined to prosecute more than nine out of every 10 terrorism cases sent to them by the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies. Nearly four in 10 of the rejected cases were scrapped because prosecutors found weak or insufficient evidence, no evidence of criminal intent or no evident federal crime.

Isn't it ironic that while we're spending billions for public diplomacy and propaganda in the Muslim world, trying to win hearts and minds, we have failed to show respect to Muslims in the United States. Muslims in the US come from 80 countries and they are experts of these regions, in certain cases part of these states' national elite. If we consulted them, our policies would have been those that could literally turn the tide of hatred against us.

But our Islamophobia and the demonization of Islam and Muslims, has led to torture, rape, murder and disrespect instead of building bridges of understanding, respect and mutual learning to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe in the global village. (http://soundvision.com/info/peace/demonization.asp).

The six Imams: Clarifying the facts

There has been plenty of false information disseminated about this case. RadioIslam.com recently interviewed one of these Imams and here are his clarifications:

  1. All of the Imams had round-trip tickets unlike what media reported
  2. All of them were carrying luggage contrary to media reports
  3. No one changed their seat during the flight except a blind Imam who wanted to be seated next to someone he knew, another Imam in the group.

Most likely it was their prayer that triggered the Islamophobia against them. And since Islamophobia today is the only acceptable racism left in America (http://www.soundvision.com/info/racism/islamophobia.asp), the word of one passenger, who did not know that "Allah" means God and is part of the Muslim prayer, led to six religious leaders being kicked off of a plane. Ironically they were in the city to discuss how to deal with extremism and build bridges.

If these men were criminals, why would they show off their religiosity? The 9/11 terrorists shaved their beards and were found not praying in a mosque but enjoying themselves in a strip joint the night before they committed their deadly deed. They did not display their religion because they did not want to draw attention to themselves.

Blaming the victim versus fixing the system

Unfortunately, some have said the Imams were trying to deliberately provoke a response by praying. This is false. This is blaming the victim versus fixing the system. It's like blaming an African-American for provoking the use of the N-word or a Jewish person for uttering anti-Semitic epithets. It's like blaming a Muslim cab driver who was murdered by a hostile passenger for his own death, as happened in February 2005 in Chicago (http://soundvision.com/info/civilrights/haroon.asp).

This incident also reminded me of when a group of Muslim youth from Chicago were kicked off their plane during a stopover in Philadelphia. Some elderly ladies came on board and wanted to sit together. These young Muslims obliged and started moving from their seats to accommodate them. That was enough to trigger an Islamophobic response even though the women themselves tried to explain that the boys moved at their request.

Although the Imams should feel free to prayer wherever they are, they also need to consider the environment of fear and suspicion en vogue when it comes to Muslims in America today. This of course is due to the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It would have been nice to have prayed in a chapel to avoid invoking this fear on the part of some and Islamophobia on the part of others. In American culture it is considered odd for people to be praying outside of a religious institution.

Isn't it sad that extremists on both sides dominate the news and it is innocent Muslims who have problems traveling because of their skin color, faith and country of origin? Americans are fearful of traveling to most parts of the world. Muslims are afraid of coming back to their own homes.

I am hopeful, however, that America will come out of this phase of Islamophobia and fear mongering as we have learned that the Iraq invasion was not based on truth.

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