Flying the Islamophobic Skies: Tahera Ahmad's Ordeal with Shuttle America

One of the stories I’d been monitoring this week was one involving Tahera Ahmad, Director of Interfaith Engagement and Associate University Chaplain at Northwestern University, and her horrible experience while flying Shuttle America, one of the smaller airline companies partnered with United Airlines. In case you haven’t heard about the ordeal, here’s a quick rundown. 

Ahmad states that while on the flight, she asked the flight attendant for an unopened Diet Coke for “hygienic reasons.” The attendant refused her request, which was only the start of the problems during the trip:

Tahera-Ahmad-Facebook

Of course, Ahmad’s ordeal hit a nerve and launched a protest against United Airlines due to their mistreatment of Ahmad, coupled with the hashtag #UnitedforTahera.

Even more outrage came after United issued their first statement, calling the incident a “misunderstanding over a diet soda.” Ahmad responded to this:

Ahmad also revealed discrimination she’s dealt with before and after this particular instance. As Ahmad said in an interview:

Since 9/11, I’ve experienced discrimination many times. I’ve been spat on, had my hijab pulled off, been detained for hours by the TSA and missed speaking engagements in front of hundreds of people. …This is not about a can of soda, it’s about an environment which is encouraging people to be demeaning, bigoted and hurtful. …I do a lot of speaking engagements about Islam, Islamophobia, women’s rights, and I believe in just and peaceful dialogue. But the type of hatred and discrimation I’ve been experiencing is not comingout of a vacuum.

Ahmad discussed even more abuse she’s received since going public with her airline discrimination story to the Guardian. 

It’s worth noting how much more of a hateful place America has become for Muslims. As The Intercept states, “Nearly a decade and a half after 9/11, documented hate crimes targeting Muslims in America are five times higher than they were in the year 2000,” citing the recent murders in Chapel Hill, mosque burnings, assaults and other crimes that have proliferated the news cycle. There’s also forms of workplace and hiring discrimination, such as the case in which Abercrombie & Fitch were found guilty of discrimination for not hiring Samantha Elauf because of her hijab.

The site also states the FBI hate-crime stat of 13.7 percent of anti-religious hate crimes targeting United States Muslims, even though it’s thought that this statistic is “understated,” which reads to me as “underreported.”  All of this leads to polling showing how an uncomfortable number of Americans viewing Islam in a negative light.

Thankfully, United has since issued a new statement better addressing the situation at hand, and Shuttle America confirmed to the Guardian that the flight attendant “had been pulled from future United Express flights and would be retrained.”

Also, as you can see in one of the tweets above, it seems like the attendant herself and the pilot apologized for what happened, which is the right thing to do. Ahmad responded to the actions United has taken, but also wishes that everyone involved can come out can use the moment as a learning experience.

At the end of the day, this story highlights the growing need for America to get out of this scapegoat mentality when it comes to its Muslim population. It’s not only time for America to re-educate itself on the actual nature of Islam, it’s time for America to realize that Muslims aren’t all Al Qaeda. Islam is one of the biggest religions in the world; it’s one of the cornerstones of Judeo-Christianity, for goodness’ sake! Everyone needs to stand up for the rights of Muslims, but particularly those of us who are part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are our spiritual brothers and sisters, and leaving them out in the cold is not what spirituality should allow.

Also, we should remember that no one is a cookie-cutter stereotype. Every person you see is just that, a person, with different tastes, likes, dislikes, and personality quirks. If Ahmad wanted an unopened soda, that’s what she should have gotten instead of someone thinking she’ll make a weapon out of it. If I want to walk through the airport without my natural hair getting patted on, I should be able to do that without someone thinking I’m housing a weapon in braids. (Thankfully, that practice of patting down natural hair has been disbanded.)

No one should be governed by stereotypes, something Decker Ngongang writes about in-depth for Fusion. Everyone should be respected on the grounds of their humanity.

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Photo credit: Jesus Rodriguez (Flickr/Creative Commons)