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A Headscarf, United Airlines, Mother Teresa and a Soda Can

06/03/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016
JP Greenwood via Getty Images

Imagine this scenario: Mother Teresa, wearing her traditional garb, is on a flight, surrounded by passengers who recognize her. She requests an unopened can of soda from a flight attendant. (It's incongruous, but just imagine...) The attendant refuses, loudly stating, "No, you might use it as a weapon, so no diet Coke for you," but then turns to give an unopened can to a nearby passenger.

Imagine whether the flight attendant would have the nerve to do so, knowing Mother Teresa's reputation, and knowing that the comment would be heard and judged by others. Imagine what the surrounding passengers might say to the attendant, to upbraid her for such rudeness, and to Mother Teresa, to commiserate against such injustice.

Not Mother Teresa

This scenario is obviously a fabrication. But substitute Tahera Ahmad, the Muslim chaplain at Northwestern University, who wears a hijab or headscarf, for Mother Teresa, who also covered her head. This is the scene Ms. Ahmad says happened to her on May 29, as a passenger on a United Airlines, Shuttle America flight. Except the surrounding passengers did not intercede on Ms. Ahmad's behalf or commiserate with her, rather, some turned on her, bolstered by the negativity of the flight attendant, saying, "You, Moslem, you need to shut the f*** up. You know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the f**k up." The rest apparently stayed silent, or, according to Ms. Ahmad, shook their heads "in dismay."

Now imagine going about your own routine business, which sometimes includes flying, and suddenly feeling yourself the very visible target of hostile attention, almost a mob, and being completely unable to extricate yourself from the situation.

I know this frightening feeling. Years ago, when I was scheduled to travel, also on United, from New York, a pilot's' work slowdown had cancelled almost every flight on that particular day. Irate passengers were clamoring to get on the few remaining flights, and I was on the only flight departing to Chicago that night. LaGuardia had a strict nightly curfew, after which planes are not allowed to depart at all. We were admonished upon boarding that passengers needed to be settled quickly, so the flight could take off. As I entered, a flight attendant thought my bag wouldn't fit under my seat. I told her it contained medical equipment I may need during the flight, and if it didn't fit, I'd remove the equipment and give her the bag immediately. As she watched, I stowed the bag, which did fit, asked if I could use the washroom before takeoff, to which she agreed. I quickly returned to my seat to discover that the attendant had taken my bag and checked it.

When I questioned where it was, the attendant loudly said that if I objected, the plane wouldn't depart at all that night. Suddenly passengers around me were involved. And very hostile. Incredibly, the attendant argued with me, more loudly, about my medical condition, about which she knew nothing.

She was actively fomenting the other passengers to turn on me, in a potentially dangerous fashion. Because I felt genuine fear, I demurred, knowing full well I should not have agreed. Having no access to my medical equipment meant I could have been in a true medical emergency.

The difference between my situation, and the imaginary scenario of Mother Teresa, and Ms. Ahmad's experience, as she has related it, is that there was nothing about me that made passengers predisposed to either support or to despise me. The anger and hostility I faced from my fellow passengers was awful, even frightening. But it was merely situational, and once we were airborne, the passengers were unconcerned with me, though I remained in a state of anxiety and stress.

"Shut the f**k up"

Tahera Ahmad, however, as an identifiable Muslim, by virtue of her headscarf, requested an unopened can of diet Coke on her flight. She was refused with the excuse that she might "use it as a weapon", by the attendant who then gave an unopened can of beer to a nearby passenger. When Ms. Ahmad turned to nearby passengers for support, she heard, "Moslem... shut the f*** up. You know you would use it as a weapon...". This story has been widely covered, by various media, and at #unitedfortahera, and Tahera Ahmad has faced predictable and extremely stressful and frightening backlash.

Ms. Ahmad has excellent personal and professional credentials and credibility. There certainly are passengers, other than those who turned on Ms. Ahmad, who know exactly what happened. They should come forward. And United Airlines should go to real lengths to truly understand what occurred, not just to get past this, as expediently as possible, attempting to sidestep any repercussions.

First of all, United, and all airlines must be concerned about how their staff modulate situations. This attendant allegedly herself incited a dangerous climate, in a setting from which Ms. Ahmad, and other passengers, could not "escape." It seems akin to the classic example of yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater, turning a simple exchange about a soda can into an allegation that Ms. Ahmad held nefarious motives for requesting it, alarming surrounding passengers to suspect an imagined threat. As passengers turned against Ms. Ahmad, the situation immediately escalated to one of authentic danger, physical and emotional, for Ms. Ahmad. as well as for others who had no way to extricate themselves from the setting. Surely flight attendants are given training to prevent such situations, not to incite them.

Following the leader -- or displaying leadership

It is likely that passengers were uncomfortable, but were themselves hesitant to engage on Ms. Ahmad's behalf, unwilling to elicit further commotion, or to polarize with the passengers who spoke so negatively to Ms. Ahmad, particularly when the "authority" had taken the stance that seemingly sanctioned the profiling.

I don't believe that United Airlines, as a corporation, subscribes to the views the attendant allegedly expressed. If there is a policy for pop-tops, it should be simply and uniformly practiced, not based on profiling of passengers. I imagine that the flight attendant merged her professional role with her personal beliefs, inappropriately.

Nevertheless, United Airlines should address and redress this situation, not just as a corporation in a public relations mess, or because such behavior by their employee was dangerous for all involved. They should take this opportunity to deeply consider and to positively impact the sort of culture -- as we know from history -- which reveals what happens when it becomes increasingly acceptable or normalized to demean, stigmatize and stereotype groups of people at large, so that one can cast insults and innuendos with confidence that others will join in the smearing, taunting or worse.

History compels us to consider how individuals, leaders, institutions and corporations have at times -- monumentally -- failed to stand against the incremental stages of unjust prejudices; how many of them rather became complicit, through action and through inaction. We all should hold ourselves to standards of self-scrutiny in such matters, as prejudice begins to saturate our culture and become normalized.

It is becoming increasingly acceptable to hold anti-Muslim prejudice, which, apparently, the flight attendant held, took for granted and felt a fair amount of comfort in publicly displaying, as did those passengers who turned on Ms. Ahmad.

"Muslim, but no one knows it..."

I speak and write on such matters, regularly. Following one high school program, a young man patiently waited until other students dispersed, then whispered to me: "Thank you for your program. I'm Muslim, but no one here knows it." This chilling statement, of the need to "pass" to feel safe is a telling commentary on how vast numbers of Muslims, leading innocent, moral, ordinary lives now feel. Ms. Ahmad, visually identified as Muslim, does not "pass." She wears an identifiable article of clothing, akin to, for example, skullcaps worn by orthodox Jewish men, or the head coverings worn by some Orthodox Jewish women, adhering to the same standards of modesty that some Muslim women do. But religious garb, like skin color, does not constitute legitimate grounds for suspicion and generalized smears.

United Airlines should engage seriously and respectfully in this matter. Rather than merely fire the flight attendant, they should work to enlighten her, and, more so, should use this situation as a teachable moment for their entire workforce. United could do something that ripples into our culture as the sort of force for good that we extol when we think of those who exemplify values we hold in extreme admiration; the sort of admiration we hold for that other woman who covered her head... Mother Teresa, (whether or not she would ever request a diet soda).

Anya Cordell is a speaker, writer, activist. She is a recipient of the Spirit of Anne Frank Award bestowed by The Anne Frank Center USA and is the author of RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case which unravels presumptions of what we call "race"; named among the "books to change your life" by N'Digo Magazine. Anya, who is Jewish, has passionately countered post-9/11 hate-backlash against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others. Articles include "Sikhs Bearing Pizza" and "Hate Speech Against Muslims Incites Violence" . Her programs for children through adults tackle "appearance-ism", xenophobia, Islamophobia, and all stereotyping. See www.Appearance-ism.com

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