On Nov. 21, “NBC Nightly News” ran a story about a US Airways flight to Phoenix, Ariz. that was delayed on account of what some felt was suspicious activity by some of the flight’s passengers. Six Muslim scholars were returning home after attending a conference on religious tolerance in Minneapolis, Minn., and while waiting for their flight three of the men did their evening prayers in the airport terminal. This aroused concern among some of the passengers, one of whom gave a note to a flight attendant. Soon after boarding, the six men were taken off the flight in handcuffs after refusing to leave the plane.
But was this situation an example of legitimate fear of terrorism, or another case of religious intolerance? Immediately after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, numerous cases were reported about acts of discrimination against members of America’s Muslim communities that sometimes targeted individuals who simply “looked Muslim.” These acts took the form of verbal abuse, vandilization, boycotts and sometimes escalated to physical violence. While five years later such violent forms of discrimination and hatred have subsided, last week’s event shows that a great deal of fear still exists among Americans.
A line must be drawn between caution and discrimination, and last week the six Muslim imams were victims of discrimination and ignorance. As President of the North American Imams Federation Omar Shahin explained, these prayers are a normal practice.
“Three of us did our prayer in the terminal, as usual, as normal, as 100.7 billion Muslims do five times a day,” Shahin said. For participating in a daily practice, these men were punished and humiliated.
Fellow travelers were afraid of what was foreign, and acted instinctively on this fear. In response to the situation, aviation lawyer Kenneth Quinn said, “I know I say prayers a lot, but I say them silently when I’m on board an aircraft, and that’s usually the course of action that most people do.”
But who are most people? And why must the ways of the majority be the only acceptable ones? This is the kind of mindset that results from being underinformed, and sadly it is one that is not uncommon in our country.
For Americans, 9/11 created hightened sensitivity of a threat to the country and an awareness of an entire culture that had existed as a societal minority. For those who became more aware of the Muslim world because of 9/11, this culture became inextricably bound to a potential terror threat. Despite efforts from members within and outside of the Muslim community to educate the public about Islam, many Americans still live in ignorance and fear.
As Shahin said, “if up to now [Americans] don’t know about [Islamic] prayers, this is a real problem.”
We live in a country with a diverse population that, unfortunately, seems to function according to the needs and wants of the majority.
Religious freedom has always been an important part of American history; it is a constitutional right. But we should push ourselves to move beyond merely tolerating the religious beliefs of fellow citizens and make attempts at understanding. Only then will we be able to move beyond fear of that which we do not know.
Swain is a member of the class of 2008.