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TSA’s Notice to Fliers About Ramadan

Good intentions and unintended consequences

It is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of reflection, fasting and prayer for Muslims. During daylight hours, those observing Ramadan do not eat or drink and may be more frequently in prayer. With heightened religious activity, however, could also come irrational fear and suspicion from non-Muslims. So says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in a notice to air travelers about flying during Ramadan.

“TSA understands that this is a significant religious event for the Muslim community,” reads a Traveler Information notice on TSA’s website, posted on July 2. “The TSA has reminded its security workforce that traveling passengers may be observed at various areas in the airport…engaged in religious practices and meditations during Ramadan. TSA would also like to inform the traveling public that they may notice passengers who are observing Ramadan engaging in the following activities at the airports.”

Though delivered with the best intentions, however, TSA’s informational effort is woefully insufficient to educate the public and could actually contribute to unwarranted suspicion of Muslim travelers in the future.

The notice goes on to list numerous innocuous activities that should not alarm passengers. Certainly, TSA’s notice is well-meaning, and it has won some thanks from various Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Though delivered with the best intentions, however, TSA’s informational effort is woefully insufficient to educate the public and could actually contribute to unwarranted suspicion of Muslim travelers in the future.

 

American Perspectives of Islam

Ramadan is one of the central pillars of Islamic worship. The Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) instructs the faithful to fast for one lunar month. In practice, this means that, from sun up to sundown, one who is observing Ramadan does not eat and does not drink (even water) – indeed, nothing is taken into the body, including things like cigarette smoke and chewing gum. As well as honoring the time during which portions of the Qur’an were first revealed to Muhammad, this fasting is a form of sacrifice, keeping the individual mindful of those in the world who go hungry every day.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

A Transportation Security Administration official checks a passenger’s identification at a security checkpoint. Transportation Security Administration photo

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, making Ramadan a major global annual event. There is a one in four chance that the individual sitting in the next airplane seat is a Muslim, and some U.S. fliers have a poor track-record of showing acceptance and understanding for Muslim customs and dress. There are numerous examples of people being yanked off planes because of suspicious activity, which really just boils down to prejudice and ignorance among the flying public.

Irum Abbassi (a U.S. citizen) was pulled off a flight in San Diego because someone thought she said “It’s a go” into her cellphone before hanging up and getting on board. Turns out she was telling Verizon’s customer service, “I have to go.” In 2011, an Atlantic Southeast pilot told two men in traditional dress that he would not fly with them on board because it might upset other passengers. Notably, both men had already cleared TSA’s passenger screening process. And back in 2006, six imams (Muslim religious leaders) were escorted off a U.S. Airways flight in handcuffs because of comments they supposedly made. All were later cleared, none posing a threat.

These findings show that about half the country links Islam with a propensity for violence, which could be fueling unwarranted suspicion of Muslim air travelers (presumably identifiable from clothing or other factors associated with the much-lamented “profiling.”) Thus, TSA’s notice to travelers is not without merit. Educating the public about Muslim religious activity could help limit reports of suspicious behaviors that are actually just heightened religious practices during Ramadan. The intention is sound, but the execution is lacking. TSA’s notice could actually end up doing more harm than good.

There is a divergence of opinion amongst Americans about the link between Islam and violence. A recent Pew Center on Religion and Public Life survey found that 42 percent of Americans think Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence; 46 percent think Islam is no more violence-inducing than other religions. There is difference between age groups. For the 30 and under crowd, 60 percent think Islam is no more dangerous than other faiths, and more than half of 30-to-49-year-olds think the same. More than 50 percent of those older than 50, however, think Islam is more likely to encourage violence.

These findings show that about half the country links Islam with a propensity for violence, which could be fueling unwarranted suspicion of Muslim air travelers (presumably identifiable from clothing or other factors associated with the much-lamented “profiling.”) Thus, TSA’s notice to travelers is not without merit. Educating the public about Muslim religious activity could help limit reports of suspicious behaviors that are actually just heightened religious practices during Ramadan. The intention is sound, but the execution is lacking. TSA’s notice could actually end up doing more harm than good.

 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

By providing information about Muslim religious activity during Ramadan, TSA seeks to limit public unease over what may be unfamiliar activities. The primary focus of TSA’s announcement is the act of prayer. Those observing Ramadan may be more likely to pray (in what sense, either with bowing and prostration or just sitting, TSA does not elaborate); they may be reading, listening to or reciting from the Qur’an; and they may be using prayer beads (which by way of comparison is similar in practice to how a Catholic prays with a rosary). None of these are overtly threatening actions. Setting aside TSA’s assumption that they would frighten some air travelers, as well as the dreadfully simplistic description of religious activity, TSA’s notice raises two problematic consequences for how the public understands Islam vis-à-vis aviation security.

Ramadan

A Muslim uses prayer beads. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is hoping that by alerting air travelers about Muslim religious customs during Ramadan, that problems can be avoided. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Rehan

First, in detailing which practices are to be expected during Ramadan, TSA inadvertently implies such activities should raise suspicion the other 11 months of the year. TSA does not say, “here are some aspects of Islamic worship that are not indicative of nefarious activity.” Instead, the notice simply states what is to be expected during Ramadan, even though prayer is a daily, year-round obligation that many Muslims follow. Without clarifying, TSA could lead some to think Muslim prayer is a troubling sign when not performed within the confines of the Islamic holy month.

The assumption by some that terrorism and Islam are intimately linked raises big problems for DHS’ “See Something, Say Something” campaign. The counterterrorism waters are muddied by myriad reports of non-threatening behavior nevertheless viewed as suspicious. If the American public is as fearful and uninformed as TSA’s announcement suggests, the notice falls well short of what is needed to appease fears and inform the masses.

Second, TSA is not the right messenger for this kind of public education. By speaking to Muslim practice specifically, TSA acknowledges and attempts to counter the public suspicion of Islam, but at the same time, it reinforces that suspicion. TSA is a counterterrorism organization, and by speaking to Islamic practice, they link counterterrorism with Islam in the public eye. That was likely not their intention, but it is an inadvertent consequence.

The Huffington Post’s Melody Moezzi makes another good point. If a Muslim is traveling during Ramadan, they are religiously excused from fasting for that day. The same is true if one is sick, pregnant, menstruating or is a pre-pubescent child. However, for those of age with a divine excuse, one is supposed to make up a missed day, tacking on another day of fasting later in the month. So would a person in traditional garb munching on a tiny bag of pretzels raise concern? What about someone praying or reading Qur’an after Ramadan has ended because they are making up missed days? Unfortunately, TSA’s notice offers no insight or education on these points, which means the notice to fliers could end up causing more confusion than it resolves.

“See Something, Say Something”

The DHS’ “See Something, Say Something” campaign faces problems, especially during Ramadan, because some people intimately link terrorism and Islam. U.S. Department of Homeland Security graphic

The assumption by some that terrorism and Islam are intimately linked raises big problems for DHS’ “See Something, Say Something” campaign. The counterterrorism waters are muddied by myriad reports of non-threatening behavior nevertheless viewed as suspicious. If the American public is as fearful and uninformed as TSA’s announcement suggests, the notice falls well short of what is needed to appease fears and inform the masses. Educating the public about the world’s fastest growing religion is far more important than a brief notice posted in the labyrinth of the TSA website.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...