Itineraries: Traveling While Muslim Complicates Air Travel

2016-11-08 09:52:18

 

Itineraries: Traveling While Muslim Complicates Air Travel

Passing through airport screening can be time-consuming for any business traveler. But Nafees Syed, a lawyer and writer in New York, has additional obstacles.

“I have to go an extra hour earlier than anybody else, because it’s not random checking,” Ms. Syed said.

An American and a Muslim, Ms. Syed wears a hijab, or head covering. More often than not, she said, she is pulled aside at security check-in for secondary screenings and pat-downs, the examiner feeling her head through the hijab.

Ms. Syed, along with many of her American Muslim friends and Islamic-rights advocates, is all too familiar with what many refer to as the stigma of traveling while Muslim.

There are various ways, of course, that Muslims might draw unwanted attention from gate agents and security officials at airports, such as when a Middle Eastern or other foreign-sounding name might result in being compared against no-fly lists. But for followers of Islam who signal their identity through the way they dress, their clothing can sometimes feel like a red flag.

Being a business executive or a professional like Ms. Syed — a Yale Law School graduate and commercial litigator in the prestigious firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner — does not necessarily exempt American Muslim travelers from the sort of scrutiny that they say has become more common in recent years as a result of terrorist incidents and anti-Islamic political rhetoric.

Ms. Syed said that when traveling with non-Muslim colleagues, she avoids passing through security alongside them. “I don’t want them to see the humiliation I am going to go through,” she said.

Ms. Syed said she has not applied for the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program, which can streamline security clearance for some travelers, after she asked around among other American Muslims. “Word on the Muslim street is that if you’re Muslim it’s either really hard to get that or it doesn’t necessarily help anyway,” she said.

Officials of the T.S.A., which conducts airport screenings, say the extra scrutiny is not a matter of focusing on religious groups but can be necessary because scanners can have trouble getting clear images under some types of clothing.

“Persons wearing head coverings, loose fitting or bulky garments may undergo additional security screening, which may include a pat-down,” Mike England, a T.S.A. spokesman, said in an email interview. “A pat-down will be conducted by a T.S.A. officer of the same gender.” If an alarm cannot be resolved through a pat-down, he said, the passenger may be asked to remove the head covering in a private screening area.

But many Muslim Americans contend that, too often, they are simply targets.

“Unfortunately, the global terror network created racial profiling against Muslims,” said Hilal Elver, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of “The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion.”

In an email, Professor Elver said that airport screening can place a special burden on Muslim women whose religious beliefs dictate that they cover their heads or even more of their bodies.

Ms. Syed, the lawyer, said her faith required her to cover her head in public. But she said some of her Muslim friends avoid traveling with religious or cultural clothing and will even “deliberately wear college shirts or something like that to kind of mitigate the potential discrimination.”

There are no reliable statistics on whether Americans who are Muslim, or might appear to be, are being subjected to increasingly strict scrutiny by airport security officials. But various human rights groups have flagged it as an issue of increasing concern, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“It is a right for all of us as Americans to travel freely,” said Brenda F. Abdelall, an official with Muslim Advocates, a national legal defense group based in Oakland, Calif. “For individuals to have to modify behavior, or be concerned before they are traveling about what they may wear or what they may say, is problematic.”

Daayiee Abdullah, an African-American man who is president of the Mecca Institute, an online Islamic seminary in Washington, said he reserved the right to wear cultural clothing like a thobe — a long robe — or skullcap while traveling, even though he realizes it may mean heightened scrutiny at airports. He is also an openly gay imam.

“I get the trifecta,” Mr. Abdullah said. “You just never know what the issue is — race, religion, sexual orientation.” Still, he advises those who feel they are being targeted to “act calmly and go through,” he said. “The shortest distance to the other side is to cooperate.”

Some travel hubs, including Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, have noticeable numbers of Muslim women with head scarves working at security checkpoints.

But Asha Noor, an official with Take on Hate, a Muslim-rights advocacy group in Dearborn, Mich., compared the situation to police departments hiring African-American officers while ignoring systemic bias. “Just because there might be a few more Muslims or Arab-Americans working at the Detroit airport, doesn’t change the culture of suspicion,” said Ms. Noor, who covers her hair.

Corey Saylor directs the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia. He acknowledges that not all T.S.A. scrutiny can be attributed to racial profiling.

“We do see women getting secondary screenings frequently,” Mr. Saylor said. “But it is very hard in all honesty to say if it is the head scarf that is triggering that, or the fact that the head scarf is loose.”

Muslims are not the only religious group who might be subjected to extra screenings at airports because of what they wear. Sikhs, who cover their heads — typically with a turban for men, a long scarf for women — also often draw extra scrutiny.

“For Sikh Americans, humiliation is a prerequisite to air travel; we are pulled aside and profiled simply because of the way we look,” said Arjun Singh Sethi. He is the director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, a national group founded in the aftermath of 9/11, when some Sikhs were violently attacked.

“The turban is a sacred article of faith and stands for justice and equality,” Mr. Sethi said. “Observant Sikh Americans are mandated to wear it and should not be forced to remove it every time they travel.”

Mr. England, the T.S.A. spokesman, said the agency was intent on becoming more culturally sensitive.

“T.S.A. partners with organizations representing multicultural communities to gather input, facilitate mutual understanding and exchange information,” he said.

But for many American Muslims, that understanding is coming too slowly.

Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born United States citizen, is government relations manager for the human rights organization American Friends Service Committee.

Mr. Jarrar won a $240,000 settlement in 2009 from the airline JetBlue over an incident a few years earlier. He had been stopped from boarding a flight while wearing a T-shirt with the phrase, “We Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic and English, the slogan of an antiwar group.

JetBlue workers said the T-shirt frightened passengers, and let him board the plane only after he put on an “I Love NY” heart logo shirt they gave him.

“I took a stand against it,” he recalled recently, “because I felt that the assumptions behind asking me to take off the T-shirt are the same assumptions that lead to killing Arabs and Muslims daily without thinking of them as equivalent human beings.”

Mr. Jarrar said he viewed the situation for Muslims and Arabs traveling through airports and other public accommodations as part of a continual evolution that various ethnic groups in the United States have undergone — “whether it is Japanese-Americans, or Chinese-Americans, or Italians, or even Irish-Americans at one stage.”

“Discussing this issue now,” for Muslim Americans, he said, “is one of the very important steps towards focusing it as a nation and trying to deal with it, and put it to rest.”

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