On Wednesday, United Airlines banned one of its flight attendants for an unfortunate incident that recently went viral. Aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. on Friday, a Muslim woman named Tahera Ahmad was denied an unopened can of Diet Coke by a flight attendant. Ahmad, a Northwestern University chaplain on her way to speak at a conference that promoted dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth, asked for the can to be unopened for hygienic reasons.
In a Facebook post, Ahmad described feeling unsafe at 30,000 feet in the air, locked in a plane with an a combative airline worker, an aggressive passenger, and others who were complicit in their silence. She alleges that the flight attendant in question justified her discriminatory behavior by telling her that unopened cans are potential weapons: “It’s so [she] won’t use it as a weapon.”
Looking for support from bystanders, Ahmad asked if her fellow passengers if they had witnessed what had happened, only to be yelled at by a man seated nearby: “[You] Muslim, you need to shut the f**k up. [You] know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the f**k up.”
But the flight attendant was not the only one guilty of targeting Muslims. At roughly the same time, protesters in Phoenix, Arizona staged a demonstration outside the Islamic Community Center during the Friday evening prayer service. According to the Washington Post, the anti-Muslim event was organized by Jon Ritzheimer to denounce the “tyranny of Islam” in the United States.
Ritzheimer intended for the demonstration to be a “free speech event” inviting “patriots” to draw Muhammad outside the center, in response to the attempted shooting at a Garland, Texas event in early May. But most of the 250 anti-Islamic protesters were heavily armed, donning military style clothing and rifles; some in shirts that read: “Fuck Islam.”
“Freedom of Speech Rally Round II,” as Ritzheimer called it, was met with just as many counter-protesters who formed a human chain around the mosque.
Somehow the media calls this a "peaceful protest"
— Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) May 30, 2015
The concurrent events—the discrimination and harassment of Ahmad and the anti-Islam rally—seem to be business as usual in post-9/11 America, where all Muslims are held responsible for a very small extremist faction of the religion. Muslim-Americans are targeted by hate groups, as the predominant representations of Islamic communities are sensationalized and the one billion-plus Muslims of the world are treated without any degree of humanity.
American Islamophobia is widespread, and protests against the religion are often contradictory, antagonistic, and dangerous. Here are the four biggest misconceptions that Arizona protesters and casually racist flight passengers have in common.
1) Freedom to assemble doesn’t mean the freedom to incite violence
— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) May 30, 2015
The “Freedom of Speech Rally” decried the supposed “tyranny of Islam,” which apparently aims to squash everyone’s right to draw racist cartoons. As tweets rolled in about the rally, pictures showed the playtime-militia, and an enthusiastic looking neo-Nazi proudly wearing an SS symbol on his chest.
By now, it should be common knowledge that if you have a Klan member or neo-Nazi on your side, you’re wrong. Sure, the First Amendment protects one’s right to be a card-carrying member of the Klan, identify as a Nazi, or say the “N-word” willy-nilly, but the problem with hate rallies like Ritzheimer’s is that they are actually meant to intimidate, making the space unsafe for Muslims to practice their religion.
Indeed, this environment is proving incredibly dangerous, as hate crimes against Muslims have multiplied five times in the 14 years since 9/11, from an average of 20 or 30 per year to 500. The past year alone has been met with mosque burnings, vandalism, and murders. The former was blamed on a homeless drifter, the latter was written off as a “dispute” over a parking space. To give heavily armed white supremacists the platform to intimidate and confront Muslims in the U.S. only fans the flames in an environment that’s already extremely violent.
2) Freedom of speech doesn’t negate freedom of religion
Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, during which two gunmen opened fire on the satirical newspaper killing 12 cartoonists and a police officer, a major talking point of progressives and conservatives alike has focused on the importance of free speech. The Phoenix protest cited this as the primary cause of their armed demonstration outside the prayer service. Similarly, the “Draw Muhammad Contest” held by noted hatemonger, Pamela Geller, in Garland offered $10,000 to the best, most offensive depiction of the Prophet. The “contest” was very deliberately intended to provoke a response from Muslims.
The head of the Dallas chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations, Alia Salem, urged the Dallas/Forth Worth Muslim community to ignore Geller’s efforts to “incite our community and rile us up.” Salem continued in a post on Facebook, “Without our reaction, [Geller] has no story at all and no draw for the media, which is what keeps her going and allows her to get publicity.” Although two extremists from Phoenix unsuccessfully attempted to attack the event, the overall Muslim community had not dignified the “contest” with a response.
What’s dumbfounding about these freedom of speech rallies, however, is the fact that, while expressing a very important First Amendment right to assemble and speak, they are ignoring an equally important stipulation of the amendment: the freedom to practice one’s own religion.
Tehara Ahmad’s experience on her flight was a solid example of religious discrimination, manifesting through the flight attendant’s alleged racist stereotyping to the passenger’s aggression and assertion that Ahmad, personally, will use a soda can as a weapon. The Phoenix protest was more of an armed intimidation that created a dangerous environment for Muslims attending Friday prayer service. Had it not been for the counter protesters forming a human chain around the Islamic Community Center, one could imagine how much harassment from the armed white supremacist protesters could have escalated.
It’s hypocritical to favor one clause of the First Amendment while blatantly ignoring one equally important one. United States lore cites the pursuit of religious freedom as a founding tenet of the country; true “patriots,” as many anti-Islamic demonstrators see themselves, would understand that.
3) Most white people are killed by other white people
Islamophobic sentiment in the United States is fueled by the idea that Muslims are determined to kill Americans and instill Sharia Law. As no credible evidence of that has yet been uncovered, the mass anti-Muslim hysteria is rather misdirected. The number-one threat to the lives of white Americans is other white Americans.
In a report by Vox earlier this year, a 2011 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigations found that 83 percent of white murder victims were killed by other white people. The study exposed an extreme double standard in how racial violence in the U.S. is represented in the media. Much attention is paid to the “epidemic” of black-on-black crime, placing the social crises of the country on marginalized groups.
No different is the larger representation of Muslims in news and popular media. Americans are inundated with images of al-Qaeda and ISIS extremists, suicide bombers, and beheadings as if to scream,“The Muslims are coming!” But the bigger picture shows that, although these representations feed the frenzy of Islamophobic Americans, they cannot be further from the reality.
4) They are on the wrong side of history
— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) June 1, 2015
In reaction to the discrimination Tehara Ahmad faced, Muslim Americans have been met with resounding support from allies across religious and racial boundaries. #PHxMosque and #NotMyAmerica were taken over by people criticizing the aggressive demonstrations. The Islamic Community Center held a massively successful interfaith “Love Not Hate” solidarity vigil on Monday. The Internet was #UnitedForTehara, moving beyond a can of Diet Coke to address the everyday discrimination against Muslim Americans.
Anti-Islamic protests by the likes of Ritzheimer and Pamela Geller incite hate, promote violence, and are hypocritical in how they pick and choose to interpret the First Amendment. While they have the right to say what they want, they also have to deal with critical backlash as people see them for what they are: hateful bigots.
Feliks Garcia is a writer, powerlifter, and foster of homeless cats. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, is Offsite Editor for The Offing, and previously edited CAP Magazine.
Photo by Dane Hillard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)