Is It Illegal to Be Muslim in the USA?

Seems like it. You can get sent to jail for wearing a scarf around your head in a courthouse. And you can be detained by the FBI in an airport for having a beard or wearing a scarf. And looking “Arab,” of course.

Mr. Irfan turned to his wife, Sobia Ijaz, as they boarded AirTran Flight 175 at Reagan National Airport near Washington Thursday afternoon, and wondered aloud where the safest place to sit on the airplane would be — the front? The rear? Over the wing?

But passengers sitting behind them evidently overheard the remark, saw Mr. Irfan’s beard and his wife’s head scarf, and grew concerned. Mr. Irfan and his wife, along with six members of their extended family, are Muslims, and were on their way to a religious conference in Orlando when they boarded the flight.

The worried passengers contacted flight attendants, who contacted Transportation Security Administration officials, and soon, Mr. Irfan and his wife were off the plane and being questioned in the jetway. The six remaining family members in the traveling party were taken off the plane as well, along with a family friend who happened to be on the same flight and who happens to be a lawyer for the Library of Congress.

Next, the nine Muslim passengers — all but one are United States-born American citizens — were taken to a quarantine area in the passenger lounge where they were questioned by F.B.I. agents. Mr. Irfan’s three small nephews were denied access to food in the family’s carry-on luggage.


Alright, that was just rhetorical. But for real, is there any question whether that woman would have gone to jail, whether that family would have been detained, if they hadn’t been visibly Muslim? What else did they “do” to appear suspicious to those around them? If a white, non-Muslim couple had had the same discussion as Ms. Ijaz and her husband while waiting for a flight, can we reasonably expect that they would be prevented from boarding the flight and questioned by the FBI?

Let’s all hope these incidents are isolated, but remain vigilant against all instances of discrimination against the Muslim community.

To learn more about anti-Muslim bias in the US and efforts to counter it, visit the Council on American-Islamic Relations website and the awesome blog Muslimah Media Watch.

12/3/09 Update: AirTran has apologized. Yay AirTran for not remaining intractable.


4 thoughts on “Is It Illegal to Be Muslim in the USA?

  1. If a white, non-Muslim couple had had the same discussion as Ms. Ijaz and her husband while waiting for a flight, can we reasonably expect that they would be prevented from boarding the flight and questioned by the FBI?

    No way in hell. I have had that exact conversation before, more than once. It’s a point of debate in my family when we travel together; my mom insists that it’s safest to sit right above the wing, but I don’t believe her. Has anyone ever thought we were out of the ordinary? Nope. We’re white. We get to chat idly in public without worrying about being dragged off a plane and publicly humiliated. It breaks my heart that not everyone has that privilege.

  2. Oh AirTran, first my 12 hour travel day fraught with delays, now racial/religious profiling!

    Actually this is an interesting situation because the racial profiling initially didn’t come from
    AirTran, the TSA or the FBI, it came from what it sounds like a couple of passengers on
    the plane who made some sort of sincere, yet unfounded complaint. I wonder after a complaint
    like this is made about anyone of any race or religion, if the pilot or Airline wouldn’t take
    a similar course of action. There is no denying that racial/religious profiling took place at some level
    with all the parties concerned, but the report that i’ve read said the FBI took the complaint
    seriously (which they are probably required to do in all instances), questioned the family with professionalism and respect, realized it was totally bogus and asked for the family to be allowed back on the plane.

    “The FBI agents actually cleared our names,” said Sahin. “They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, ‘There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,’ and they still refused.”

    Ultimately i guess the fault lies with the captain and the members of the plane who made baseless
    accusations, it looks like the FBI acted appropriately, which is reassuring. It’s unclear what the pilot knew or what his motivations were. He too, i am sure, was influenced in his decision by their religion
    but it’s also his want to take any concerns over safety, even if dubious, with the upmost sincerity. Was he wrong to take the complaint seriously? Was he simply following a protocol? Or was he simply biased?

    I feel awful for the family, but i think cases like this that are covered widely in the media can have an soul searching and eye opening effect on people. This notion of evil islamic terrorists that the Bush administration has hammered home on the population has instilled a lot of needless fear in people about muslims. People need to know that there are millions of American born muslims who are just like everyone else. No one wants to be taken off of a plane simply because of the way they look. I hope the American people can learn a lesson from this.

  3. I too am happy to see this get wide coverage- it seems the MSM is taking it seriously. It also seems the Muslim family involved have been very skilled at standing up for themselves and getting it publicized.


    Good point. I am glad that the FBI seems to have been rather fair about the whole situation. The troublemakers here were the other passengers- just average people who seem to have accepted negative stereotypes about Muslims.

    We should consider that all 104 passengers were significantly inconvenienced by this episode… everyone was marched off the plan and had to go through security again. (Not sure why… to make it seem like they’re being thorough?) So one or two people’s Islamophobia unnecessarily delayed over 100 people, and caused 9 people to feel humiliated and discriminated against.

  4. I think all of the passengers have to deplane (funny word) and be rechecked when there’s a ‘concern’ about another passenger because that passenger may have sneaked something into their luggage/onto their person. Theoretically. Maybe.

    I think this whole situation was horrible. And personally, I didn’t think AirTran’s explanation and apology were so great. I’m glad that they refunded their money and apparently are giving them free flights, not that they’d ever want to fly AirTran again… but it still seems like they’re not owning up to the fact that they were wrong.

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