Being told to get off plane in front of passengers was “humiliating”, says Kameelah Rasheed, who alleges discrimination. After passing through regular security checks at Newark Liberty International Airport on her way to a holiday in Istanbul, Kameelah Rasheed was called for further questioning by customs officers.
She was later allowed on the United Airlines flight, but eventually forced to leave the aircraft ahead of takeoff to be interrogated by an FBI agent.
The 30-year-old Muslim American told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the two-and-a-half-hour ordeal a day earlier has left her traumatised and unable to consider flying any more.
“It was an attempt to humiliate and ostracise me,” she said.
“I think this happened because I’m Muslim, because I’m travelling to Istanbul, because they have power with no checks and balances, because security means violating people’s rights, because there’s a general lack [of understanding of] what safety means, because people don’t understand basic geopolitical situations.”
Al Jazeera has contacted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty airport, for comment.
Rasheed is one of a number of Muslims in the US, or people perceived to be Muslim, who say they have been on the receiving end of profiling since the attacks in Paris on November 13, which were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
Rasheed said that she was the only passenger of about 200 who was asked to leave the flight on Tuesday, as the customs officers confiscated her passport and phone.
“I was the only visibly Muslim person,” said the New York resident, who wears a headscarf.
Rasheed, an artist, educator, Stanford University graduate, Fulbright scholar and contributing editor at The New Inquiry, added that while the airline had booked another ticket for her, she was scared of being targeted again on her onward journey and chose not to travel.
“I don’t think there is a resurgence of Islamophobia after the Paris attacks. I think it never went away. It’s becoming more legitimised.
“Right after 9/11, you could do it [commit hate crimes towards Muslims] for a couple of years and no one would blame you… And now after Paris, it’s like, ‘look at what they did, I can treat them how I want’. We didn’t make any progress.” The customs officers asked her several of the same questions repeatedly, she said, including: “Why are you flying? Where are you going in Istanbul? How can you afford to go on holiday? How much was the ticket price?”
“The questions were circular and nonsensical,” she said. “I wasn’t going to the border with Syria. I was going to the tourist locations, to see the Hagia Sophia and take a ferry across the Bosphorus.”
Rasheed was accused of having booked a one-way ticket, even after showing evidence of return flight tickets to the officers on her phone.
“I honestly feel very traumatised and shaken. I don’t feel comfortable flying at all,” she said. “I’m still very angry and hurt, but I have to temper that with not having expectations for being treated better. I shouldn’t expect any better. This is the militarised state that we have decided to live in.
“These are the consequences of me being Muslim and black and American – everything at the moment is organised around me being checked. This is what it is.”
She added that she has been stopped for extra security several times before.
“It’s frustrating to me that I can’t fly like a normal human being,” she said.
“My mum was saying to tie my scarf another way. I can’t be out in the world like other people without having to rearrange my entire life because someone else fears me for something I had nothing to do with?”
Last Tuesday, Spirit Airlines removed four passengers, reportedly of Middle Eastern descent, from a flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Airport after a witness reported suspicious activity. Details of the “suspicious activity” emerged later; the Middle Eastern passenger had reportedly been watching a news report on the phone.
Last Wednesday, US citizens from Philadelphia Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad were asked to step aside before boarding a Southwest flight at Chicago Midway airport. A fellow passenger had heard them speaking Arabic and complained to staff of being afraid to fly on the same aircraft. They were questioned by police.
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Also last Wednesday, six Muslim passengers were removed from a second Southwest flight – also travelling from Chicago, reportedly because of a dispute over a seating arrangement.
“We’re witnessing an increase in these kinds of reports,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Relations (CAIR), told Al Jazeera. “It’s part of an overall rise in anti-Muslim sentiment following the Paris attacks.
“We’re getting a lot of reports from individuals who say they are fearful of travelling. Some Muslims are even concerned about leaving their homes.”
A report released by CAIR on Tuesday listed alleged hate crimes towards members of the US’ Muslim minority since November 13 – or those perceived to be Muslim. It cited at least 12 instances of intimidation, threats and violence against places of worship, and six examples of violence against individuals – including shots fired into a couple’s home, and an assault on a pregnant woman.
A photo taken by Kameelah Rasheed before customs officers took her phone from her after she was pulled off a flight to Istanbul [Supplied: Kameelah Rasheed]
“Our nation’s leaders need to speak out against this type of anti-Muslim hate. The American Muslim community is a small minority and we by ourselves, we can’t push back against the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Hooper.
“What we’re seeing is the end result of the mainstreaming of Islamophobia by leading public officials, such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump. They have given some form of legitimacy to those who would carry out anti-Muslim attacks or profiling.
“It has taken us back almost to the dark ages of the 1930s.”
He added that, unlike former US President George W Bush, the country’s current leader Barack Obama has never publicly visited a US mosque, a move that would give some reassurance to the community that it is protected against such attacks.
“We always anticipated a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the presidential campaign,” he said. “Where from here? I don’t think Islamophobia is going to go down. It’s going to go up.”