TSA scanners, pat-downs particularly vexing for Muslims, other religious groups

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 AM

As Erum Ikramullah prepared to head to Reagan National Airport on Thursday for a flight, she mulled over two distasteful choices: the body scanner or the pat-down?

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a trip to the airport has been fraught for Muslims, who sometimes feel they are being profiled as potential terrorists because of their religion. The addition of full-body scanners, which many say violate Islam's requirements of modesty, has increased the discomfort.

Muslims aren't alone in their antipathy toward the new security measures. Followers of other religions, including Sikhs and some Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, also say the scanners and pat-downs make them uncomfortable or breach the tenets of their faiths.

But Muslim women have been particularly reluctant to subject themselves to the scanners, which reveal the contours of the human body in glaring detail.

In Islam, "a woman's body and a man's body are both pretty much private," said Ikramullah, 29, who wears a head scarf. "I choose to cover myself and dress in loose-fitting clothing so the shape of my body is not revealed to everyone in the street."

The other choice, an "enhanced" pat-down in which security agents touch intimate body parts, was hardly more appealing, said the College Park resident. In recent years, Ikramullah said, she has been pulled aside for a milder version of the pat-downs almost every time she flies. The reason, she believes, is her head scarf.

"It can be humiliating when you're standing there and people are walking by, seeing you get the pat-down," she said. "You just feel like you have a target on your head."

About 440 advanced imaging technology machines are in use in the United States, and there are plans to increase that number to 1,000 - in roughly half the nation's security checkpoint lanes - by the end of 2011.

Opponents and civil libertarians have likened the scanning to a virtual strip search, and it has caused some to rethink their holiday travel.

"I've had a lot of Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, say they're going to put off travel plans as much as is humanly possible because they just can't take the humiliation of it all," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "They're tired of being singled out for their attire. We have reports of Muslim women in tears."

Earlier this year, the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Muslim jurists who interpret Islamic law for Muslims in North America, issued a ruling calling the full-body scanners "a violation of clear Islamic teachings" that men and women not be seen naked, adding that the Koran requires believers to "cover their private parts."

But the alternative - the enhanced pat-down - has also posed problems for some, including Sikhs, who wear turbans as part of their religious observance.

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