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It’s Bigotry that Should Be Silenced

ColumnDecember 07, 2006


    A couple of months ago, Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi architect and blogger, was heading from JFK Airport in New York to Oakland, Calif. He was approached by two Transportation Security Administration workers and two JetBlue employees. They said he could not get on the flight wearing the T-shirt he had on. His shirt read, “We will not be silent.”

    He asked what the problem was. It was not the English words that bothered them, but the Arabic script above it.

    Jarrar said it was simply the Arabic translation of the English. He said the officials countered that they didn’t have a translator, so they couldn’t be sure.

    They handed him another T-shirt, and said if he wanted to fly he had to wear it over his own. He put it on, and they escorted him onto the plane. Not to his assigned seat at the front of the plane, but to the back of the bus, I mean, plane.

    Jump ahead two months to Nov. 20 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. This time it’s US Airways. Six imams, or religious leaders, have come from a conference at the Mall of America. Its purpose was “to discuss how to build more bridges with non-Muslims, how to be more open-minded imams,” said Omar Shahin, the president of the North American Imams Federation. That purpose would soon be sorely tested.

    The sun was setting. It was the imams’ prayer time. Sensitive to drawing attention to themselves, the six men decided only three of them would pray. Said Shahin: “We picked a quiet area. We did not bother anybody. We did our prayer in a very quiet, lower voice.”

    Then they boarded the plane. Shahin had been upgraded to first class. Three of the imams sat in the middle, and two sat in the back, in their assigned seats. Two asked for seat-belt extenders. According to the later police report, one off-duty flight attendant found the seat-belt extenders unwarranted and thus suspicious. When Shahin was a guest on my daily show “Democracy Now!,” he needed an extra-long microphone cable to accommodate his girth. As Shahin sheepishly said, “I’m a big guy.” Yes, his need for a seat-belt extender was real.

    Imam Shahin then did the unforgivable — he walked to the middle of the plane to offer his older, blind colleague his first-class seat.

    Before they knew it, airport police swarmed onto the plane, and the six imams were herded out, handcuffed and interrogated for hours. Shahin said, “When I saw the look in the eyes of the other passengers, it became the worst day of my life.” After the FBI cleared them, US Airways still refused to allow them to fly. The imams bought tickets on Northwest Airlines and flew back to Phoenix, humiliated and angry.

    Racial profiling does not make us safer. It simply alienates and marginalizes whole populations. Whether it is African Americans driving while black, or Muslims trying to fly home.

    Back to the T-shirt story. The phrase “We will not be silent” goes back to the White Rose collective of World War II. A brother and sister named Hans and Sophie Scholl, with other students and professors, decided the best way to resist the Nazis was to disseminate information, so that the Germans would never be able to say, “We did not know.”

    The collective distributed a series of pamphlets. On the bottom of one was printed the phrase “We will not be silent.” The Nazis arrested Hans and Sophie as well as other collective members, tried them, found them guilty and beheaded them. But that motto should be the Hippocratic oath of the media today: “We will not be silent.”

    Our job is to provide a forum for people to speak for themselves, to describe their own experiences. This breaks down stereotypes and bigotry, things that fuel racial profiling, which ultimately endangers us all.

    Amy Goodman hosts the radio news program “Democracy Now!” Distributed by King Features Syndicate.

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