Better safe than sorry, they say. But what that also means is: Don’t expect an apology.
Yet again, a Muslim passenger was removed from a flight because his presence set off alarm bells. To be clear, the young man in question was not flagged by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is tasked with keeping our skies safe. Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a Iraqi asylee and student at the University of California, Berkeley, was reported by a fellow passenger. Makhzoomi’s crime? Speaking Arabic in a way that was “perceived to be threatening,” according to a statement by Southwest Airlines.
Of course, Muslim doesn’t mean Arab. But in this brave new world, the nuances and differentiation of Islam are rapidly disappearing. Racism treats Islam as a visible identity-marker, which may or may not correlate with being religiously Muslim. A beard, a generically Middle Eastern appearance (“non-Hispanic brown” might be the politically correct descriptor), or a headscarf (unless you are the Virgin Mary) are all signs to watch out for now. As is, apparently, the willingness to communicate publicly in a language associated with Islam.
Makhzoomi’s is not an isolated case. Folks have been removed from flights for sounding Muslim or looking Muslim before. But it is an important one.
See a Muslim, think danger. We used to call it “Flying while Muslim.” Right now we’re rapidly transitioning to the much more exciting and comprehensive “Existing while Muslim.” Even some of the more generous public conversations about Muslims still reduce us to tools in the War on Terror: “well, we shouldn’t alienate them, because then they’ll become terrorists,” or the marginally less offensive, “we need Muslims to defeat terrorists.” Does this mean that once we’ve finished off the terrorists, we won’t need Muslims anymore? Or perhaps that once we’re done with Muslims, we won’t have terrorism?
But I digress. Not every Muslim man or women is viewed with suspicion in America. And yet, all it takes is a pattern of incidents to create a new normal. Not every interaction between a police officer and a black man or woman ends violently. But enough of them do to highlight a very real, very systemic societal problem. As a result, every black American, regardless of class, regardless of context, regardless of circumstance, feels a chilling effect.
In short, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi’s mistreatment is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our country is convinced we are locked in a battle to the death with ISIL. But ISIL, as dangerous as it is, hardly poses an existential threat to the United States. Simultaneously, many Americans seem to believe that terrorists posses no sophistication whatsoever. Neither does law enforcement, apparently. As a result, the public has dutifully deputized itself in the interests of national security.
And speaking Arabic has become a suspicious act.
The truth is, many American Muslims are African American or South Asian. Most Muslims worldwide come from Pakistan and the east. In other words, most Muslims aren’t even Arabs. But many Muslims do have Arabic names. President Barack Hussein Obama is not Arab (or a Muslim), but his first name and middle name are of Arabic origin.
My first name is the Arabic pronunciation of “Aharon,” Moses’ brother. In the Islamic tradition, Moses and Aaron were prophets, Muslims, and role models. Indeed, many Muslims name their kids after heroes from the Islamic tradition, much like American parents name their daughters after presidential last names: Taylor, Reagan, Madison, Lincoln. (My apologies to any future Trumps.)
Many Muslims also pepper their everyday conversation with Arabic locutions. Is Arabic now publicly taboo? How much Arabic is too much Arabic?
What if I say “inshallah,” which in theory means “God willing,” but in practice means everything from “I don’t know” to ”we lost your credit card.” What if I say “mashallah,” which generally means “whatever God wills,” but can actually be used to mean, “congratulations on your child’s completion of her medical residency; my envy knows no bounds.”
What if I say hummus, which is a tasty snack dip that some airlines offer for sale? What if I ask for a mocha cappuccino. Given that Mocha is a city in Yemen, I could be describing a nefarious plot hatched with co-conspirators overseas.
Unfortunately, until we know for sure just how deeply our identities have become tied up with American insecurities, we Muslims—as well as those who are assumed to be Muslim—will continue to suffer the consequences. The only thing more offensive than racism is racism inconsistently applied. After all, I need to know if I should ask my ride to stick around just to make sure I can get on the plane.
Then again, what if my driver is named Muhammad, and gets stopped by a suspicious police officer wondering why he’s circling the terminal? I guess the answer is just to stay home.