To say that Muslim travellers have been forced into becoming disturbingly acclimated with the phenomenon commonly known as ‘flying while Muslim’—or situations involving bigotry, and expressions of bias directed towards Muslims as they travel by air—is an understatement. From customary “random” pat-downs and secondary screenings to invasive questions—and the likelihood of being thrown off your flight for doing anything remotely foreign—to flight attendants and passengers who are threatened by the sound of anything other than English, it’s a constant battle.
On Dec. 21, YouTube celebrity Adam Saleh—known mostly for his senseless pranks and copycat “social experiments”—was allegedly thrown off a Delta flight after a passenger overheard him speaking in Arabic on the phone during a call to his mother. It’s fair to approach this specific incident with some skepticism, as Saleh is known for outlandish “social experiments” which he characterizes in a way that is meant to manipulate public perception in order to have them appear entirely genuine.
For example, in 2014 Saleh released a video that purported to show Muslims being profiled by the NYPD as part of the virulently racist stop-and-frisk program. The only problem was that the entire “racial profiling experiment” video was staged, and they were forced to admit to what they would later cowardly describe as being a “dramatization” after people expressed skepticism about its authenticity. These kinds of dramatic fabrications, while detestable, don’t mean that these things don’t happen—that Muslims aren’t routinely targeted for simply existing. And this said, it isn’t Muslims that are always the targets of anti-Muslim bias.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, an Iraqi refugee and senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was left humiliated after a passenger reported him to airline staff after they overheard him speaking Arabic. Thw word Makhzoomi used was insha’Allah, Arabic for “God willing,” but the passenger told attendants that he had said “shaheed,” Arabic for martyr. After being forced off the plane, Makhzoomi was thoroughly interrogated, frisked, and refunded, but no apology was given.
In May, Guido Menzio, an Ivy league economist and winner of the Carlo Alberto Medal, “given to the best Italian economist under 40,” was removed from a flight after a passenger became unnerved by a brown man writing in what she assumed was Arabic. Menzio hadn’t been writing in Arabic, he had been scribbling out mathematical equations. The core issue here is that a passenger had the ability to have another individual escorted off of a plane due to her own hysteria, and airlines across the U.S. have continued to indulge similar bigoted imaginations.
In December last year Dr. Bilal Rana, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s Youth Association, was confronted by the FBI, frisked in front of a plane full of passengers, had his belongings confiscated, and was then put into the back of a police vehicle. Rana, who had been wearing a shalwar, a traditional knee-length shirt, was profiled and left humiliated. “To those who saw me as a threat”, Rana would write, “I hope you never know what it feels like to have a group of police officers single you out. I hope you never know what it is like to be frisked while standing in front of a plane full of passengers. I hope you never suffer the embarrassment of watching mothers hold their children tightly as you walk by them.”
Faisal and Nazia Ali, a Muslim couple who had been celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary in Paris, were removed from a Delta flight back home to Cincinnati in August after a flight attendant claimed to have heard the couple use the word “Allah,” the Arabic word for God. “[G]rab all of your personal belongings. You’re not going to be on this flight,” a ground agent told them. That same month, two Muslim women, both of them federal employees, faced armed marshals and police officers at Miami International Airport and were treated as though they were security threats after allegedly making a flight attendant feel “uncomfortable.”
These cases are not new, and they are happening more often. Muslims are having to endure racialized bigotry expressed by fellow passengers, as well as airline policies which offer them little to no recourse if they are ever suspected of something. Passengers living out half-brained delusions where they’re Jack Bauer are now able to get any Muslim, or anyone perceived to be Muslim, kicked off of planes, and the airline industry is letting them do it. Speaking Arabic isn’t a reason to be thrown off of a flight, nor is praying, wearing a hijab, a dishdasha, a turban, or anything else that seems to send bigoted non-Muslims into hysterics. Those reporting Muslims for doing something so benign as existing, or existing while foreign, are not heroes, no matter how heroic they may feel. They do not have the safety of themselves or passengers in mind when they report Muslims. The airline industry must change its policies so Muslims are not forced to be dehumanized. There is already enough of that happening before they find their seats.