CAIR official describes pain of 'flying while Muslim'

From The New York Times

By Diane Daniel

Roula Allouch, 36, is a Cincinnati lawyer and the chairwoman of the national board of directors of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the nation’s largest civil rights and advocacy groups for the American Muslim community. Raised in Kentucky, she is a member of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative for the Middle East and North Africa. Ms. Allouch’s parents emigrated to the United States from Syria in the 1970s. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ms. Allouch.

Q. The term “flying while Muslim,” a variation of the expression “driving while black,” implies that Muslims are hassled during air travel because of their religion or ethnicity. Is this a major concern?

A passenger at Heathrow Airport outside London waits in her hijab.

A passenger at Heathrow Airport outside London waits in her hijab.

A. Our main concerns during this time of heightened Islamophobia are mosque attacks, bullying against students and traveling — they’re equally discussed. More and more people are being deplaned because they’re Muslim. For instance, one student was asked to leave a flight because he was speaking Arabic. What seems to be happening frequently is if another passenger on the plane has a complaint, the person they’re complaining about is asked to deboard. We’re a country that operates with civil rights. It’s very arbitrary and very troubling.

You wear a hijab and fly often for work. Do you feel you’re treated differently?

It’s one of the most subtle things, but it stays with you. I feel people’s tension. When I’m walking down the aisle and people look up, they give a different expression than when it’s another person. There are people who give me a hard, strong stare and a stern look. But there also are people who go out of their way to give me a smile.

Does the Council on American-Islamic Relations offer advice to air travelers?

We refer people to our “Know Your Rights” booklet, which includes rights as an airline passenger. But even when you know your rights, you’re in a vulnerable position, especially if you have children with you. With the family that was recently asked to leave a flight out of Chicago, the woman said they agreed because they wanted to protect their children.

Have you changed any of your behaviors?

In the past year, I have because I’m worried about perceptions. For instance I’m mindful of when I speak Arabic. Or [when] I was late for a connection and was running through O’Hare — try “running through airport while Muslim” — and people looked at me noticeably differently than the other woman making the same connection. Some actually stopped in their tracks.

In light of the bombings in New York and New Jersey, and the man charged with the attacks whose parents are immigrants from Afghanistan, do you anticipate that Muslims will be treated even more suspiciously?

We certainly see an increase in attacks against Muslims following such tragic events, and I’d imagine we may likewise see more incidents of Muslims being removed from flights. From my perspective, the challenges in flying while being identifiable as Muslim these days are more related to the hate and rhetoric being spewed against Muslims than individual acts. The airline industry has to do a better job of protecting its customers.

Many Muslims pray five daily prayers in different physical positions. Is it uncomfortable to pray while traveling?

Some airport chapels have Muslim prayer rugs, but they’re not always convenient. I’ll try to find a gate that’s not actively boarding.

Do you say specific prayers?

There are some prayers recommended when you’re traveling; in general it’s a recommended time to pray. For me, privately and personally, I often have quiet communication with God in my airplane seat. I always try to get the window seat, and I look outside and pray for an end to the hardships around the world and for justice and friends, and for myself. There’s something beautiful about floating through the clouds, and I try to not forget that.

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