Flying While Muslim

A small portrait of the translator

January 13, 2009 @ 16:31 UTC

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Terrorism and Security

I’ve been thinking about Raed Jarrar’s successful court case. Jarrar is a Palestinian-Iraqi who left Baghdad a few years ago and moved to the United States. He is known in the blogosphere for his provocative postings, which have been highly critical of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Now, Jarrar has won $240,000 from an airline that in 2006 forced him to cover his T-shirt, which had Arabic writing. “We will not be silent,” the shirt reportedly said. While he wasn’t forced to deplane, his seat was changed, and he was offended.

I’ve got mixed reactions to this case. Most of us Arabs and Muslims who have flown since Sept. 11 (and even before) have been harassed and humiliated by airline security people at one point or another. I could tell you all sorts of stories to make you cringe, starting with old ladies being strip-searched and going downhill from there.

Most of the people I know have not called their lawyers from the boarding gate, but have dealt with the problems by hoping to show the airline security types that we are not terrorists. After all, many of us have been on planes where we too may have engaged in some nervous “profiling,” listening carefully to what certain fellow passengers might be saying to each other, keeping an eye on their movements, etc. We’ve been on both sides of this problem. So we thought that if we showed the airline personnel that we were just people, they might just let us get on with our journeys. Not that it always worked, mind you: Some of us were allowed to fly, some were not.

So believe me, I don’t like how we get treated at airports, and sometimes I dread flying at all. But I also remember what it was like to go to the Baghdad airport during Saddam’s era: Members of my family were taken off planes there, nobody ever offered a reason why, and there was not a prayer of any recourse of any sort, much less civil damages. Some of them were taken to jail, some were just sent home and forbidden to fly at all. That sort of thing helps me remember the difference between brain-dead “security” in a nervous democracy, and true thuggery.

It’s okay with me that an airline be forced to pay for its stupid acts. But I rather wish that the beneficiary would have been somebody other than a character like Jarrar.

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