By Katy Granath Posted February 18, 2009
It was early afternoon on January first and the nine members of the Irfan family were taking a vacation to Orlando, Florida, to meet up with some relatives. They bought their tickets, boarded AirTran flight 175, and took their seats. Atif Irfan, a tax attorney from Virginia, commented to his brother that sitting near the engines might be unsafe. Two teenage girls overheard the remark and told the flight attendants and the pilot, who alerted the two federal marshals onboard, who called in the airport police and FBI. Not only was Mr. Irfan removed from the plane, but his entire family, and a friend who had coincidentally booked the same flight, were all taken into custody for questioning.
The Irfans, who have five small children between the ages of two and ten, were all detained, the rest of the passengers were de-boarded and screened, and every suitcase was removed from the cargo hold and searched as a thorough sweep was made of the plane. Does the airline’s overreaction to a passenger’s passing comment seem extreme? Well, the Irfans are Muslim and they had dark complexions, beards, and headscarves. Naturally, the airline assumed they were terrorists.
This kind of incident is not uncommon in the US. In our post-9/11 world, we are afraid of anything that bespeaks that terrifying land called the Middle East, an unfamiliar language, or dark skin, or Arabic lettering. We all remember 9/11 with a reverent fear, a sense of duty to never let such tragedy happen again.
After two hours the FBI determined that the Irfans were completely harmless, but AirTran would not allow the detainees to re-board the flight. The three men, the mother, and the five children were told they could no longer fly on AirTran Airways. The FBI stepped in and attempted to reason with AirTran officials, but the airline stubbornly refused to budge.
The Irfan’s situation was not an isolated incident. In 2006 Raed Jarrar was stopped at the airport security checkpoint while en route to his flight. The young anti-war activist was wearing a shirt that said “we will not be silent” in Arabic and English. Mr. Jarrar was eventually allowed to continue to his flight, but only after he purchased a new shirt to wear over his previous one. The airline also insisted he sit in the back of the plane.
Does this kind of prejudice sound familiar? Muslims are treated as second-class citizens in America, and it is absolutely wrong. Our fears should never be used as an excuse to treat some American citizens worse than others, should never be used to take freedom away from an American citizen, and should never be used to mistreat Muslim Americans and their families.