A growing number of Muslims, Sikhs, and people of Middle Eastern descent are reporting incidents of racial and religious profiling while trying to board planes, sparking concerns that rising anti-Islam sentiment is triggering a new wave of discrimination at airports.
American Muslims have long encountered difficulties at airports, where security officials have been accused of unfairly profiling, questioning, searching, and detaining passengers simply for “looking” Muslim — including people who are not devotees of Islam, such as Sikhs and Arab Christians. Policies that support such profiling — many enacted in the years immediately following the September 11 attacks (although most have proven largely ineffective at catching terrorists) — remain in place today and have been defended by White House officials, even though Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents have voiced misgivings about programs that single out people based on race or religion.
But as the United States endures an unprecedented wave of anti-Islam hatred following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino late last year, Muslim Americans and others affected by Islamophobia are reporting a rash of new airport profiling cases — this time not just at the hands of the TSA, but also airline companies and fellow passengers.
In November, four passengers of Middle Eastern descent were removed from a Spirit Airlines flight for “suspicious activity” — a claim that revolved around one of the passengers viewing a news report on his phone. Later that month, two Palestinian-Americans were barred from boarding a plane in Philadelphia when a fellow passenger complained the pair made her uncomfortable because they were conversing in Arabic. And in December, Sikh American activist and regular MSNBC contributor Valarie Kaur was asked to show her breast pump to fellow passengers on a Delta Airlines flight to “prove” she wasn’t a terrorist.
“I’m sitting on the flight now, shaken,” Kaur wrote in a Facebook post while on the flight. “I’m thinking of the countless subtle acts of profiling of Muslim Sikh and brown bodies in the last 14 years. The double-pain: I was reading tweets on my phone about the #SanBernardinoshooting while in line, but my grieving was interrupted by a passenger seeing me as suspect.”
The incidents have often resulted in apologies from airlines, and most passengers were allowed to rebook their flights. But many of those impacted say companies aren’t doing enough to curtail profiling — especially since none of the passengers in these incidents were found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Some are taking the fight to the courts. On Monday, four men who were kicked off a flight from Toronto to New York City in December filed a federal lawsuit against American Airlines, claiming they were removed from the plane for “looking too Muslim.” According to the lawsuit, the men — two Bangladeshi Muslims, one Arab Muslim, and one Sikh from India who wears a traditional turban — were removed from the plane for no reason other than their appearance and the fact that only some in their party upgraded their tickets.
“[The airline representative] said the stewardess and the captain felt uneasy with us being on the flight,” one of the men told the NY Daily News. The group’s lawyer noted that the airline didn’t accuse any of the men of inappropriate behavior or of being a security threat, and said the incident amounts to outright discrimination.
It’s unclear what impact such lawsuits can have on the larger issue, however, since many airline protocols appear oriented toward responding to passengers who complain — not those affected by the complaints. News of the lawsuit came the same day as another possible profiling incident on Monday, when a passenger was removed from a Delta Airlines flight from Orlando to New York in part because a woman seated near him complained he was acting “suspicious.” But another passenger began tweeting as the plane returned to its gate to remove a man for “questioning” in part because he was “brown.”
“This is f###d up, @Delta took our plane back to gate and pulled a random brown guy off for questioning because some lady was suspicious,” Jonathan Gottfried, a passenger on the plane, tweeted.
Gottfried said he was seated next to the woman who complained about the fellow passenger, who reportedly told him that she “didn’t want to talk about” her reason for raising suspicion of the man. Gottfried then launched a Tweetstorm condemning the act as “racist,” and noted the other passengers seemed to be embracing into racist stereotypes as the man departed the plane.
“A couple took a pic of the hummus bowl [the passenger] left behind and just laughed,” he Tweeted.
A spokesman for Delta confirmed to ThinkProgress that three passengers were removed from Gottfried’s flight, although he insisted the root cause wasn’t suspicion but rather “failing to comply with the flight attendant’s request to discontinue the use of their cell phones.” Gottfried said he believed the flight crew was just following orders, but noted that he was also using his cell phone — while sitting next to the woman he said complained about the man who was removed.