Islamophobia in the Wake of Bin Laden's Death

Muslim passengers' removal from plane spotlights heightened tensions

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On Friday morning in Memphis International Airport, a pilot ordered two Muslim clerics, traveling to a religious conference, off a plane, The Commercial Appeal reports. Both men had been screened by the Transportation Security Administration, and were cleared. They were also subject to additional security screening at the gate. They boarded the Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight and the plane left the gate, only to have the pilot turn around and expel the two men.

One of the men, Masudur Rahman, an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, said they were told the pilot refused to accept them because some other passengers could be uncomfortable. As both men were clerics, they were dressed in the traditional garb, including skullcaps. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, called the incident a “Juan Williams thing,” in reference to the former NPR correspondent who said he was leery of flying with people in Muslim garb.

After Osama bin Laden's death, a closer eye has been placed on security, fearing retaliation from Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, as those groups have threatened. In Los Angeles, for example, massive security upgrades are planned for the rail lines, including a chemical-detection system and scores of new video surveillance cameras.

But a closer look has also been given to complicated relationships between much of the U.S. population and Islamic Americans. Many have hoped that Bin Laden will no longer represent the face of Islam, and Islamophobia will decrease as the nation has closure from 9/11. But incidents such as the one on the plane yesterday indicate, at least temporarily, a heightened tension.

Early last week, shortly after the news on Bin Laden's death was announced, the Portland Press-Herald reported that inflammatory graffiti was spray-painted on a mosque in downtown Portland as an act of "hate and bias." The graffiti included comments like "Go Home" and "Osama Today Islam tomorow(sic)." In Georgia, the AP reports, an Islamic man said he was barred from a county courtroom Thursday because he refused to remove his Muslim head covering, nearly two years after Georgia's judges voted to allow religious headwear in all state courtrooms. Ibrahim Hooper also told Reuters that since Bin Laden's death, his Islamic civil rights group has "received a number of hate calls, most expressing joy that he was killed and referring to him as 'your leader'."

Still, there is hope that without the face of Bin Laden, such responses are only temporary, and Islamophobia will start to decline in the aftermath of Bin Laden's death. Ashad Chowdhury, a Muslim American who sued Northwest Airlines after being put on a no-fly list after 9/11, writes in an op-ed for The Washington Post:

In the short run, prejudice may get worse. The press’s and the public’s fascination with the gory details of his killing — and the demand for more details and images — reflect a nation collectively fantasizing about killing bin Laden and, by extension, Muslims...

Despite this, I’m hopeful. Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, but symbols matter. Islam has long been burdened by its association with one angry man. Now this weight has been lifted.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.