“Please step out of the line. This is just a random check, ma’am,” said the TSA agent.
I shrugged and followed the agent to a separate room, where she opened up and examined my luggage. Besides my family, the other people who had been randomly selected were either Arab or of Middle Eastern descent. I was annoyed, but by then I had gotten used to it.
I frequently travel between Pakistan and the United States, and every single time, the security agents “randomly select me for extra security checks.” The 23-hour flight is tiring enough without the religious profiling and discrimination. Just being of Muslim background and traveling with a Pakistani passport implies that I am a threat — not a student going back to her home country to visit her family, but a ruthless terrorist intent on destroying lives.
Almost 14 years after 9/11, Muslims worldwide are still paying the price: They are regarded with suspicion and subject to undue hatred. The hijackers who carried out the attack do not represent the more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, more than 5 million of whom reside in the United States. “Flying while Muslim,” however, has become an issue, similar to “driving while black.”
Just last week, Tahera Ahmed, a Muslim chaplain at Northwestern University, took to social media to highlight the discrimination she said she faced on a United Airlines flight. Ahmed said she asked for an unopened soda, only to be served an opened can because the air hostess said the unopened can could be used as a weapon. Ahmed recounted that when she questioned this move, one passenger cried out, “You Muslim — you need to shut the fuck up” and “You know you would use it as a weapon.” This incident highlights the unfair profiling and fear with which Muslims are regarded.
My family and I moved to the United States three years ago. We first lived in San Diego in a small suburban town, where almost everyone was either white or Mexican. We stuck out. “So where are you from?” most people would nervously ask us. I could sense the uneasy looks and hushed comments that followed us wherever we went.
When my 12-year-old brother started school in the United States, he was the only Pakistani kid in his class. “Are your parents terrorists?” the other children would ask him. No child should have to hear such comments, and at first, my brother didn’t know how to react to such distrust. Neither did I. I was shocked that people would even consider that a possibility, let alone directly ask someone if he was a terrorist.
So many Muslims have similar stories. Most of my relatives live on the East Coast, and my cousins, who were born and raised in the United States, talk about how they are called “ragheads” and “terrorists” on a daily basis. These are American citizens — their loyalty is to the United States — yet their allegiance is questioned constantly.
After my family had lived in the United States for some time, some family friends confessed their initial doubts to my family: They stated that they hadn’t personally known any Muslims before us. But by actually getting to know us and understanding Islam firsthand, they realized that Muslims are not the violent, extremist terrorists that mainstream media often makes them out to be. Research has revealed that many Americans personally don’t know any Muslims and that Americans are more likely to view Muslims in a positive light if they do know one personally.
While many black parents have conversations with their children, especially their sons, about how to deal with the police, Muslim parents often discuss terrorism and its unfounded connection with Muslims. While traveling in a post-9/11 world, my family discussed the need to be cooperative with TSA agents and the right way to respond to misleading questions about Islam.
An individual’s actions are often interpreted according to his or her race. When Andreas Lubitz, a white Christian, deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525, killing all 150 passengers onboard, the media did not call him a terrorist. Instead, the rest of the world focused on Lubitz’s medical records and his struggle with depression. But what if he were instead named Muhammad or Osama and identified as Muslim? Not only is Lubitz not generally regarded as a terrorist, but he is also not seen as a representative of all Christians. His action is an isolated incident and does not say anything about his race. Even other attacks carried out by white men — such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the student shooting at UC Santa Barbara — are not characterized as terrorist acts in the way, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing is. There are some Muslims who misguidedly carry out terrorist acts, but their actions are not sanctioned by or representative of Islam.
Equal treatment and fairness should extend to all aspects of life and representation. It’s wrong to stereotype and demonize Muslims. Most of these stereotypes — such as those of the cloaked, oppressed Muslim woman and the infuriated terrorist — are sensationalist and shaped by the media, having little basis in reality.
Personal interaction, however, can dismiss these stereotypes and allow people to see that Muslims are just like everyone else.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].