Islamic Activists Ask, Is There A 'flying While Muslim' Bias?

There's a new term of art, "Flying While Muslim," being used by some Islamic activist groups to protest what they characterize as discrimination by U.S. airlines against Muslim passengers.

The catchphrase is intended to draw parallels to the American phenomenon known as "driving while black," which refers to the tendency of law enforcement in some areas to disproportionately pull over African-American drivers. But other, more-moderate Islamic groups say their activist counterparts are exaggerating the degree to which it's taking place. These dueling viewpoints are currently being waged on two Islamic websites.


For example, a recent article posted on the Saudi-funded website Islamonline.net points to an incident last year, when 40 American Muslim passengers returning to the United States from Mecca in Saudi Arabia after the annual Hajj pilgrimage were barred from boarding a Northwest flight from Germany to their hometown in Detroit. The article said the Council on Arab Islamic Relations or CAIR--also Saudi funded--was considering a "boycott campaign" against Northwest Airlines to decry "the increasing fly while a Muslim profiling" unless the company apologized for the incident.

Northwest Airlines did so and also launched a review of the incident. The article quoted some passengers as saying it wasn't the only incident in which Northwest Airlines appeared to discriminate against Muslims and Arabs. Indeed, one passenger was quoted as saying that Muslim travelers had dubbed the airline "Northworst."


But the website FreeMuslims.org, which is viewed as a more moderate website, had a different take on the story. M. Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, suggested that it's not so much "flying while Muslim" that's a problem as flying while being American.


Jasser says Arab airlines, especially Saudi Arabian Airlines, are "the worst offenders" when it comes to handling American Muslim passengers. He said Saudi Arabian Airlines routinely dumps passengers returning from Mecca not for security reasons but because their seats had been given to "someone else," particularly friends and relatives of the Saudi royal family.


"CAIR's Muslim pilgrim victim dragnet against American air carriers," Jasser said, "misses real discrimination by Saudi Airlines." Jasser charged that Saudi Airlines had "for years, without any public accountability demonstrated preferential treatment" of Saudi nationals over American travelers.

"Where," questioned Jasser, "is the outrage?"

By Chitra Ragavan