Flying While Muslim is a term, similar to Driving While Black, used to describe the discrimination many Muslims face while traveling by plane. It is often manifested in the form of extra scrutiny at airport security. During this election season, however, there appears to be an uptick in stories of travelers being inconvenienced by fellow passengers’ false accusations. I jotted down some of the reports that popped up in my news feed:
- 11/17/2015 – Spirit Airlines flight returned to gate to kick off four passengers, two of whom appear to be of Middle Eastern descent
- 11/18/2015 – Southwest Airlines removed six Middle Eastern passengers for wanting to sit together
- 11/19/2015 – Southwest Airlines denied boarding to two Palestinian Americans because a fellow passenger was afraid to fly with them
- 12/22/2015 – British Muslim family of 11 with proper travel authorization was denied boarding to Disneyland by US officials
- 1/5/2016 – Aegean Airlines flight delayed when two men accused fellow passengers to be terrorists
- 1/14/2016 – British imam’s US visa was revoked because one of his Facebook followers made a website
- 2/8/2016 – Sikh American was denied boarding onto an Aeromexico flight due to wearing a turban
- 4/6/2016 – US Berkeley Student removed from Southwest flight for speaking Arabic
- 4/15/2016 – Hijab-wearing woman removed from Southwest flight after switching seats with another passenger
- 5/7/2016 – American Airlines flight was delayed because an Italian economist doing math on the plane was suspected of terrorism
- 6/16/2016 – Alaska Airlines kicked off a white man for having a beard that looked “Arabic and scary”
- 7/3/2016 – Emirati man seeking medical treatment was denied check-in at a US hotel, accused of pledging allegiance to ISIS, and brutally tackled by the police
- 8/5/2016 – Muslim couple was removed from Delta flight because another passenger was uncomfortable flying with Muslims
- 8/5/2016 – Muslim American journalist and federal government worker were kicked off American Airlines flight for talking about water on the plane
- 8/23/2016 – Three Indian siblings were ordered off EastJet flight after passenger accused them of reading Arabic (which they did not even know) on the phone
But don’t take my words for it! Google “Flying While Muslim” and see for yourself the number of unnecessary flight delays and interrogations.
“I go to the airport, I can’t go through security without a random selection. Fucking random, my ass.” – Inside Man 2006
I have no personal experience with “Flying While Muslim”, because I neither practice Islam nor look like someone who does (more on this point later). However, as a travel enthusiast who’s had my fair share of frustration with both the TSA and the airlines, the thought of also having to put up with random strangers’ discriminatory perceptions would drive me nuts.
Moreover, this phenomenon is not a bias rooted in historic codes of moral conduct, which can sometimes be hard to challenge. It is merely bad math.
And bad math should be called out.
“But you understand statistics, right?”
A great deal of Americans who normally stick to political correctness are outspoken that Muslims should be subject to extra security scrutiny. The popular school of thought is that Islam (a religion that worships the same god as Christianity and Judaism) preaches hate and incites violence. Because Muslims are more likely to pose threat to public safety, this belief asserts, it is a matter of practicality to devote more screening resources on them.
More than once, people have commented in conversations that since I’m a math person, I should understand the statistics of terrorism… and therefore agree with them on the risk of Muslim people.
Well, there is no denial that we see a lot of news coverage of ISIS-inspired terrorism, sometimes in what seems like an endless loop of replays. But is it significant? For context, let’s compare the proportion of Muslim terrorists to some other numbers:
Total as reported in the 2010 U.S. census.
White supremacists include only KKK and National Socialist Movement membership, two of the largest groups.
FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center both recognize hundreds of other white supremacy groups.
Number of pilots estimated based on the 5,500 working for Lufthansa and 250 working for European Air Transport Leipzig,
pro-rated across the other commercial airlines of Germany using fleet size or total employee count.
Plane crash refers to the 2015 Germanwings incident.
* For clarity, all three red dots above are 10 times larger than their actual proportions.
- There is one ISIS member for every 32,000 Muslims in the world – meaning that 100.00% of Muslims are not part of ISIS. Also, because it is primarily an organization engaged in a war, its total soldier count is an over representation of the kind of terrorists that we discuss in the West (I don’t mean to minimize their actions in Iraq and Syria, but it’s highly unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of them will ever set foot in the U.S. or Western Europe).
- More likely than a Muslim being a terrorist is a white American being a white supremacist, and a German pilot being at risk for suicidal mental health issues. We don’t go around assuming every white person to be a Hitler reincarnation because that would be silly. Guess what? So is expecting terrorism from a random Muslim.
Additionally, I find it helpful to be reminded that while acts of terrorism is sensational, its impact in absolute number of lives is modest:
Terrorism includes domestic terrorists such as Tim McVeigh. Except 1995 and 2001, the annual death toll ranges from 0 to 20.
“Sure, not all Muslims are terrorists, but…”
As the popular saying goes, “… all terrorists are Muslim.” I’d be the first to admit: when the word “terrorist” is thrown around, my mental image jumps straight to a Middle Eastern man wearing a scarf and holding a machine gun in the desert. It’s like, when people say “mouse”, I picture the cartoon character with black circular ears. Both result from watching too much TV. And sure, when we narrowly constraint these words to our mental images, terrorists are Muslims and mice are the happiest creatures on earth.
The fact is, the Department of Homeland Security has declared right-wing extremists to be a bigger threat to America than ISIS. On top of that, domestic terrorism also includes left-wing extremists and Eco-terrorists. Altogether, terror attacks in our country are more likely to be made in the U.S.A than a Toys R Us merchandise. We are just less familiar with the non-Muslim terrorism because while news channels love replaying the San Bernardino shooting for weeks on end, coverage is fairly bare on stories like the Kansas “Crusaders” plotting to blow up an entire apartment complex in America.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s play along with the rhetoric and pretend that domestic terrorism doesn’t exist. Because all (of the very few) terrorists are Muslims, you might have heard people explain, we should focus our screening efforts on Muslims in order to effectively catch all terrorists.
This is called False Conversion, a type of logical fallacy where one says “all P is Q so therefore all Q must be P.” Just because horseradish ice cream exists – and possibly is the only dessert with this flavor – doesn’t mean you’ll likely find anything horseradish walking down an ice cream aisle. You don’t go into an ice cream party and say, “hey let’s double check to make sure we didn’t bring home a horseradish ice cream.” It’s equally as silly to look at a random group of Muslims and expect that terrorists have infiltrated it.
Your chance of being killed by a random Muslim on the airplane is about the same as getting a horseradish allergic reaction from this refrigerator
What is Islamophobia?
Every time I hear politicians or self-styled security experts discuss issues concerning Muslims, I pause for a second to wonder how anyone spots a religious belief in public.
Can they pick out Catholics or Buddhists from a crowded airport? Does TSA require secondary screening for the 20 million Chinese Muslims, many of who look more like Jackie Chan than Osama bin Laden? As the “Flying While Muslim” stories indicate, the religion doesn’t actually matter. People are being singled out based on their skin color, attire, and language – quite a few of the accusers even failed to correctly identify the other person’s ethnicity or language used.
So, when we say “Islamophobia”, what are people actually afraid of?
More than half of Arab Americans are of the Christian faith, and many turban-wearing men in the U.S. are Sikhs. Attempting to identify a follower of Islam in a public place by merely relying on visual cues is bond to result in plenty of false positives and false negatives.
Left to right: Muslim (TV depiction of a historic character), Sikh, Christian
At the end of the day, is Islamophobia really just racism in disguise?
It’s unfortunate that so many in our society don’t realize that Muslims are people, like everyone else, who go to school, refinance homes, complain about commute, and take vacations. They don’t belong in a political argument as a national security threat, and they don’t give cooties to fellow passengers on a plane.
There is no denial that 9-11 was extremely tragic to all of us old enough to remember, or that terror groups in the Middle East continue to threaten humanity around the world. However, it is illogical and irresponsible to extrapolate the actions of few extremists onto 23% of the world’s population.
For those who thought Muslims were “dangerous” because of politician-cited “statistics”, I hope this article has demonstrated the hypocrisy in that belief. Next time you see a Muslim on your flight, chill out and don’t be the asshole causing yet another unnecessary delay.