Monday, January 05, 2009

The Politics of Fear

By William Fisher

As Barack Obama’s inauguration approaches, I suppose it was inevitable that inhabitants of the parallel universe that is the right-wing blogosphere would begin circulating dark reports that our new president will take his oath of office by placing his hand on a Koran.

Well, these wingnuts are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. Here’s the main fact, no doubt inconvenient: Obama will place his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, that other radical Muslim.

The one from Illinois.

And, while we’re on the subject of radical Muslims, it’s worth noting that the past few weeks have given us yet more evidence that our post-9/11 Islamophobia is still alive and well.

Should you have any doubt, just ask the members of the Irfan family. The Irfans are American-born Muslims of Indian descent. Last week, eight members of the family, plus a friend, were sitting on the tarmac at Washington’s Ronald Reagan airport in an AirTran plane and attempting to fly to Orlando, Fla. The men in the party wore beards; the women wore headscarves.

Two members of this family reportedly had a conversation about the safest place to sit in the event of an accident. Whereupon other passengers reported these “suspicious” remarks to a flight attendant, who passed them on to the pilot, who notified a couple of air marshals on the plane, who then called the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.

All 104 passengers were ordered off the plane. The FBI questioned the “suspicious” family and cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Most of the passengers were then allowed to reboard the plane -- but the nine American Muslims weren’t. Nor were they allowed to buy tickets on any other AirTran flights. They had to buy tickets on U.S. Airways.

Initially, AirTran said it was not at fault. Later it said the incident was a “misunderstanding” and issued an apology.

“We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did,” the airline said, “but we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised,” AirTran said.

Well, actually, no, many of us don’t understand. We don’t understand the relationship between passenger security and safety and the conversation these two passengers had. What we do understand is that if these passengers had been white and clean-shaven, and the women’s hair uncovered, this incident would never have happened.

But wouldn’t that be racial profiling? Sure sounds like it. Yet the FBI, the DHS, the TSA, and every other government agency you can name, will vehemently deny it practices racial profiling.

Atif Irfan, one of the passengers who is a lawyer from Alexandria, Virginia, has a more realistic view. “Whenever we get on a plane, because of the color of our skin, people tend to look at us with a wary eye anyway.”

Kashif Irfan, 34, Atif’s older brother and another of the detained passengers, is a medical doctor. Perhaps a tad too magnanimously, he said, “We are very grateful for the apology, and we’re impressed by the outpouring of respect that AirTran has demonstrated after the fact.”

He added, however, that the Irfan family has “not ruled out the possibility of legal action.”

Others aren’t waiting for the Irfans, however. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group, has already filed a complaint with the Transportation Department requesting an investigation.

The trouble with waiting for a TSA to finish an investigation and disclose the results is like trying to get your name off one of the government’s famous “no fly” lists. Conjures up images of Sisyphus.

Now, if you haven’t run out of patience yet, here’s another exciting chapter in the never-ending annals of “activist judges.”

This one takes place in Douglasville, Georgia (population about 20,000), considered a suburb of Atlanta. In the municipal courtroom of Judge Keith Rollins, a Douglasville woman was jailed recently for refusing to remove her hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, in court.

Judge Rollins had Lisa Valentine, 40, arrested, and ordered her to serve ten days in jail for contempt of court. Police said that Valentine violated a court policy that prohibits people from wearing any headgear in court.

Ms. Valentine, who recently moved to Georgia from New Haven, Connecticut, said the incident reminded her of stories she'd heard of the civil rights-era South.

She said, "I just felt stripped of my civil, my human rights."

And she’s not alone. The same judge recently removed another woman and her 14-year-old daughter from the courtroom because they were wearing Muslim headscarves. And last year, a judge in Valdosta in southern Georgia barred a Muslim woman from entering a courtroom because she would not remove her headscarf. There have been similar cases in other states, including Michigan, where a Muslim woman in Detroit filed a federal lawsuit after a judge dismissed her small-claims court case when she refused to remove a head and face veil.

The hijab is worn by millions of Muslim women in accordance with their belief in Islam. There are many types of hijabs; in America, a majority of Muslim women who choose to cover only their hair, leaving the face visible for identification, as was the case with Ms. Valentine.

I wonder if the good Judge Rollins has somehow not noticed that followers of other religions regularly use headwear, apparently with impunity. Would he order a nun to remove her religious habit? Would he order a Jew to remove his yarmulke? Would he order a Sikh to remove his turban?

Maybe I’m missing something here.

Maybe, but what I’m not missing is the U.S. Constitution. I don’t know where Judge Rollins went to law school, but he somehow seems to have missed Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law says no one can be deprived of the equal protection of the laws on account of race, color, religion or national origin by being denied equal use of any public facility. Well, a courtroom certainly qualifies as a public facility. Our tax dollars built it.

Then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that a state can only interfere with the free exercise of a citizen’s religious observance if there’s a compelling state interest.

Denial of access to a courtroom based on a religious observance seems to me an open-and-shut case of discrimination. And where is the “compelling state interest” here?

Well, this story may actually have a happier ending, sort of.

First, after a Muslim advocacy group threatened to take the case to court, Ms. Valentine was released from jail (though the cops would not explain why).

Then, the Douglasville Police Department announced that its officers – along with Judge Rollins -- would undergo a course of "sensitivity and cultural diversity training. "

Not a minute too soon! Let’s hope they’re fast learners!

But next time you hear your right-wing friends railing against those “activist judges who legislate from the bench,” how about reminding them of Mr. Justice Keith Rollins?