Islamophobia: Wrestling with the subjective from Southwest Airlines to Latvia

My GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross Jr. published a post last week about the removal of a California man from a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speak Arabic and became concerned. If you missed the Southwest saga, click here for an Associated Press report on the incident.

Bobby's focus was that the line between irrational Islamophobia and rational precaution is often fuzzy, and that journalists sometimes rush to assume the former because "we journalists love victims."

Good point. The white-hat-versus-black-hat trope is a journalism classic.

Now let's state this issue of subjective judgement another way: Given how complicated the question of when-is-it and when-isn't-it Islamophobia can become, should journalists even try to discern between the two in what we quaintly refer to as straight, or hard, news stories, beyond the he-said, she-said level? I don't think so.

In the case of an airline about to take off, I find it difficult to argue against putting group passenger safety over all other concerns. That includes taking the risk of showing ignorance or acting insensitively toward one or more Muslim or Arab-speaking passengers in a highly sensitive, ethnically, racially and politically charged setting.

I'm not an Arabic speaker, Muslim or person or color so perhaps I'm just not as sensitive to this issue as I might be if I were any of these things. Let me also stipulate that I fly to Israel often and I can recall on more than one occasion mentally frowning when I thought some non-Israeli airline was being lax in its pre-boarding security checks. (Israeli airlines are never lax in this regard, and they make no excuses for profiling.)

Clearly, the central issue -- do you under-react or over-react, in what could be a life-or-death situation?-- is a tough one in today's age of global terrorism, in which commercial aircraft have been weaponized time and time again. It's a tough call for airline personnel, for government officials, and journalists alike.

Here's another facet of this Islamophobia debate. This example comes from Latvia, the small Baltic nation that so far has not experienced the societal tensions that have flared elsewhere in Europe as a result of Muslim immigration.

Read the top of this story that ran in last week's New York Times:

ZAUBE, Latvia -- With her niqab, a face-covering Islamic veil that reveals just the wearer’s eyes, Liga Legzdina stands out amid pine trees, grasslands and wood-paneled cottages in the Latvian hamlet of Zaube.
Villagers stare. Ms. Legzdina is one of a tiny handful of women — generally estimated at three — to wear the niqab in this Baltic nation, whose population of less than two million people includes about 1,000 practicing Muslims, according to government estimates.
But for Latvia’s Ministry of Justice, that is three niqabs too many. Citing a desire to protect Latvian culture and to address security concerns at a time of rising migration to Europe, the government is working on proposed legislation, inspired partly by similar restrictions on head coverings in France, that would ban face-covering veils from public spaces. The proposal would not ban the wearing of head scarves that do not cover the face, like hijabs, the coverings most commonly worn by Muslim women.
“A legislator’s task is to adopt preventive measures,” said Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnacs, a member of the anti-immigration National Alliance party, who predicted that the law would win overwhelming backing in Parliament and would be in place at the start of 2017.

Get that? An estimated three women in all of Latvia wear a niqab.

Yet the Latvian justice minister, judging from his comments above, believes that's enough of a threat to warrant a national law barring the wearing of a niqab at any time in public. Presumably, that would include the public space that any of the three women might have to cross going from a car to a mosque entrance and vice versa.

I understand the desire to avoid the cultural conflict Latvians see happening in Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, that's connected to the large number of unassimilated Muslims settling in those nations. Nor can they be faulted for wanting to avoid the violence perpetuated by Islam State-aligned terrorists and others that has accompanied this population shift.

But I also can't help but think that Latvia's proposed "three-niqab law" is a fear-based attempt to head off what might be labeled "creeping sharia-ism," a term I've borrowed from American-Iranian comedian Negin Farsad.

In short, it's creating a problem where there is, as yet, none, and in the process fanning an irrational fear that I think may properly be described as Islamophobia.

The Latvian case hasn't aroused much media commentary on the New World's side of the Great Pond, as you'd expect. The Southwest case has, also as you'd expect.

Three interesting reads on this I've come across are here, here and here.

The last piece is by a former flight attendant and is particularly interesting in its description of how inflight airline personnel are trained to deal with passenger fears and upsets, including those stemming from allegedly suspicious looking fellow-passengers. Read it first, if you don't intend to read all three.

So what's my journalism takeaway here?

Obviously, that one person's Islamophobia is another person's rational precaution. Moreover, the person being singled out, such as the Arabic-speaking Southwest passenger or the Latvian Muslim,  will almost always feel they've been profiled, stereotyped, and discriminated against -- no matter what those in charge think they're doing.

Perhaps that's why I, as a sensitized Jew, tend to smell anti-Semitism when others don't, or why some Christians suspect an anti-Christian bias when I do not. Perceptions are so individualized that it's imperative, as Bobby suggested, to be extra cautious about the use of the term Islamophobia -- or any ethnic, racial or religious hot-button label.

Have you noticed that I haven't actually attempted to define Islamophobia? That's because I find it impossible to come up with a blanket definition covering all possibilities.

Besides, you probably already have your mind made up on the issue and your own definition, as wobbly as it may be.

Please respect our Commenting Policy