Irum Abbasi's plane from San Diego to San Jose was about to take off, so she told a friend on her cellphone, "I have to go." Southwest Airlines crew members misheard Abbasi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan ten years ago, and is a U.S. citizen and graduate student. They thought she said "it's a go." They escorted her from the flight. Now she's suing.
Abbasi believes she was discriminated against because of her hijab, a type of Islamic headscarf. After she was removed from the flight in tears, transport security agents patted down her headscarf. But even when the staff soon realized their error, they refused to let Abbasi back on the plane. Her presence, they said, made the crew "uncomfortable."
The offended 31-year-old contacted the civil rights advocacy organization Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who connected her with civil liberties attorney James McElroy.
They sent a letter of complaint to Southwest Airlines back in March right after the incident occurred, asking the company to clarify its policies on determining who is a threat, and to develop cultural competency training for its staff, so that a similar incident didn't happen again.
Southwest Airline's response was "lukewarm," according to Edgar Hopida, a spokesman for CAIR. They made a public apology, gave Abbasi a seat on the next flight to San Jose, and a travel voucher, but didn't come to a "satisfactory resolution."
CAIR and McElroy filed a lawsuit Thursday on Abbasi's behalf. "What they did was illegal," says Hopida.
The profiling of Muslims on airplanes has become a heated issue in recent years. Back in 2006, US Airways kicked six Muslim imams off a flight at Minn. airport, because some passengers and crew members thought their behavior was suspicious. They filed a lawsuit the following year, claiming they had been removed without probable cause.
In response, Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins introduced a bill to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to provide immunity for anyone who reports suspicious behavior "in good faith and based on objectively reasonable suspicion."
Last year, the Transportation Security Administration introduced enhanced security measures at U.S.-bound flights in 14 countries deemed "state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest."
"Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -- that's profiling," Nihad Awad, the council's national executive director, told CNN.
In May, a pilot threw two Muslim clerics in "Arab garb" off his Delta connection flight because they "might" make some passengers uncomfortable.
Around the same time, Imam Al-Amin Abdul-Latif, the head of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York was trying to get to a conference on Islamophobia in Charlotte, N.C., but American Airlines wouldn't let him on the plane.
"If Abbasi didn't have a headscarf on, and if she had blue eyes and blonde hair this wouldn't have happened," says Hopida.
Many Americans, however, are sympathetic to these measures. After all, most plane-based attempted terrorist attacks in the last decade have been committed by Muslims.
But according to Hopida, ethnic and cultural profiling do not work, and only behavioral profiling is an effective tool for isolating potential terrorists.
"Look at all the people who committed terrorism on airplanes," he explains. "The underwear bomber, I would have thought he was African American kid from the United States. He was a Western-looking African."
"The shoe bomber wasn't dressed in Muslim clothes," he adds. "And the 9/11 hijackers, they were clean-shaved and dressed in Western clothing."
It's true that many of the high-profile terrorists of recent years have not worn traditional Muslim signs, looked Arab, or been Muslim at all. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is British with a Jamaican father. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber are white Americans. José Padilla, who was arrested on suspicion of plotting a dirty bomb attack and found guilty of supporting overseas terrorism, is Hispanic-American.
"They're picking up people who are innocent, but look like Muslims, while missing all the behavioral signs." The shoe bomber, for example, bought a one-way ticket, paid for it in cash, and had no checked luggage.
"If someone's acting funny, then obviously yes," says Hopida. They should be reported. "But they automatically suspected her [Abbasi]. That shouldn't be the case."
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