Flying while Muslim

hk2There's an episode of 30 Rock where the main character, played by Tina Fey, turns her Arab neighbor into Homeland Security because she thinks he's training for an act of terrorism. As she's contemplating whether to turn him in, she walks by a public service announcement that says "If you suspect ANYTHING, do EVERYTHING." She finds out, after he's taken away, that the neighbor was auditioning to compete on The Amazing Race. I couldn't help but think of this when I read the sad story of nine Muslims who were taken off a flight after two passengers reported that they heard suspicious discussions. The FBI quickly cleared the individuals -- eight were U.S.-born American citizens and the other is a permanent legal resident -- as the truth came out. They had been discussing which section of the plane is safest to sit in. While the detained passengers credit the FBI for professionalism, there's a lot of criticism going around about almost everything else with the situation -- from the airline to the passengers who were alarmed. Much of the outrage stems from AirTran's alleged refusal to let the group rebook for the next flight.

CNN really pushed the story, running it on loop and featuring it on their Web site. Their initial report was great in its fairness, attention to detail and balance. But not all coverage was appropriate. This Guardian story, which ran yesterday, neglected to provide the airline's side of the story even though AirTran finally apologized and offered to refund the passengers' ticket cost on Jan. 2.

Every story I read put the religious angle front and center. Unlike some stories dealing with Muslims, every outlet seemed to point out that the group that was removed were clearly identifiable -- by their dress -- as Muslims. They didn't refer primarily to the ethnicity of the group or use any of the standard euphemisms we sometimes are treated to when dealing with the targeting of Muslims. Amy Sullivan at Time referred to the incident as the first "Flying While Muslim" incident of 2009.

The Washington Post handled the story very well, with a lengthy and well balanced write-up:

A U.S. airline apologized yesterday to nine Muslim American passengers from the Washington area who were removed from a flight out of Reagan National Airport, but a Muslim civil rights group said it intends to press a discrimination complaint against the airline for its treatment of the passengers.

"It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin. We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith," said the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group.

The New Year's Day incident aboard an AirTran flight to Orlando marked the latest case in which Muslim or South Asian travelers have alleged that they were illegally singled out for scrutiny. Contradictory accounts given by airline and federal aviation security authorities also highlight the difficulty of decision-making and affixing responsibility in tense situations involving a perceived threat.

Profiling by security agencies based on race, religion or ethnicity has concerned civil rights groups since at least 2001, when airport security escalated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. CAIR, for example, publishes a brochure advising Muslim passengers about how to protect their rights during air travel, including how to request respectful searches and how to avoid confrontations with airport security personnel.

The entire report has context upon context. So many pundits and outlets are taking the easy way out of lambasting the airline for what were some obviously boneheaded customer service and public relations moves. But it's also true that there are many layers to this story. Was the airline acting according to federal guidelines? What should be done when passengers report suspicious conversation? Is there any middle ground between the Transportation Security Administration's random security screening procedures and paranoia of any Muslim conversation of air travel? Who exactly is to blame for the incident -- the passengers who reported the incident, the federal marshals who decided the issue needed attention, the FBI agents who removed the Muslim passengers, the airline in general or the ticketing agent or who? These aren't easy questions in our tangled regulatory state and shouldn't be treated as such.

Anyway, the quotes from the families in question made the stories better. Here's part of the Associated Press account:

[Atif] Irfan said he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves, traditional Muslim attire.

"My wife and I are generally very careful about what we say when we step on the plane," he said, adding that they have received suspicious looks in the past. "We're used to this sort of thing — but obviously not to this extent."

Irfan, 29, is a lawyer who lives in Alexandria, Va. He was traveling to a religious retreat in Florida with his wife, along with his brother and his family, including three children, ages 7, 4 and 2. They were joined by his brother's sister-in-law and a family friend

One weird part of that AP story, though, is that the reporter states as fact that -- when the passengers were removed from the plane and interviewed in the bridge -- the other passengers who were also forced to exit the plane glared at them. Having just endured a 9-hour leg of a flight with my precious toddler, I'm not surprised by glares from fellow travelers, but it still should be sourced. According to whom were the passengers glaring?

While the religious angles were well covered, I thought that religion reporter Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News & World Report raised some provocative additional issues. He wonders whether, per Stephen Prothero, religious illiteracy isn't just ignorant but dangerous in this day and age.

For those unfamiliar with the excellent Harold & Kumar oeuvre, the Guantanamo Bay plot shares some unfortunate similarities with the AirTran saga.

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