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TSA procedures offend followers of many faiths

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; A01

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.

Head scarves, turbans

Since 2007, people with "bulky" clothing, including Muslim women in head scarves and Sikh men in turbans, have been required to undergo secondary screenings involving pat-downs. Whether they are willing to go through the new scanners makes no difference, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

"Removal of all head wear is recommended, but the rules accommodate those with religious, medical or other reasons for which the passenger wishes not to remove the item," said Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman. If an officer cannot "reasonably determine that the clothing or head covering is free of a threat item," passengers are referred for additional screening, he said.

People interviewed for this article emphasized that they understand the importance of security for air travel, but some said the determination of what constitutes "bulky clothing" is made subjectively, with a bias against religious headgear.

"Somebody could pass through with a pair of loose pants that is definitely more bulky than a head covering, but the head covering gets secondary screenings," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, deputy executive director and staff attorney for CAIR in Los Angeles, adding that she has urged the TSA to revisit its policies. "The issue is whether it is being treated differently than other items of clothing and why it is being treated differently," she said.

Soule said, "TSA's policies on bulky clothing and head coverings are applied to all passengers regardless of ethnicity or religion."

But Fatima Thompson, a Glen Burnie resident who wears a robelike jilbab and a head scarf, said the policy amounts to profiling. Although the Sept. 11 terrorists and other would-be airplane bombers were dressed in Western clothing, she said, "now they're looking for specific ethnic displays, like beard or hair, and I don't think that's appropriate."

Thompson, 44, said she has heard so many stories of Muslim travelers missing their flights because of extensive pat-downs that she recently opted to drive to Toronto, a 10-hour journey each way, rather than fly.

The singling out of Muslims at the security gate perpetuates negative stereotypes and fuels anti-Islamic sentiment, Hooper said.

"It only adds to the feelings of hostility," he said.

'Akin to a strip search'

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit in July challenging the constitutionality of the scanners, listing among other complaints that use of the machines violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, "offends the sincerely held beliefs of Muslims and other religious groups" and "denies observant Muslims the opportunity to travel by plane in the United States as others are able to do."

In a written response to objections the center voiced before the lawsuit, the TSA said that because passengers may request a pat-down as an alternative, the use of scanners "does not constitute a substantial burden" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, which has also been in talks with the TSA, said the practice of secondary screenings for all Sikhs in turbans verges on profiling. Some Sikhs have been told to remove their turbans and put them through the X-ray scanner.

"For a Sikh, that's akin to a strip search," Singh said.

Requiring Sikhs to undergo secondary screening even after submitting to the scanners also raises questions about the new machines, he said.

"The TSA and [Department of Homeland Security] sort of intimated to us that if these machines were to be used as a primary form of screening and if they were so powerful that they could detect beads of perspiration, that it would obviate the need for a human screener and setting Sikhs aside for secondary screening," Singh said. "But they're telling us they can't see through a turban, which is thin cotton? It raises questions about the efficacy of the machines."

Worries about modesty

The new security measures also have raised concerns among some Orthodox Jews.

"In Jewish law, the issue of modesty is a very fundamental element of Jewish life, and going through a machine that exposes a person's body parts offends a person's religious sensibilities," said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization that has worked with the TSA. "It's clearly a picture that exposes private body parts, and I know in our community there would be a great discomfort in going through these machines."

Cohen said Orthodox Jews have also complained about the intrusiveness of the enhanced pat-downs. Some married Orthodox women, who hide their hair in public, have been asked to remove their wigs during airport security checks, he said, adding that he plans to talk with the TSA about the issue.

As for conservative Christians, "there aren't any specific Bible verses that say, 'Thou shalt not be patted down by a government agent just to get on an airplane,' but it would be a question of modesty," said Mike Farris, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College and a leader in the evangelical movement.

Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, which reports a membership of 16.3 million, said he has heard "a great deal of consternation and indignation" about the scanners.

"Conservative Southern Baptists, they're talking about the modesty issues. . . . The Bible's pretty clear about nakedness not being something which is supposed to be public. It's a disgrace," Land said.

He has encouraged Southern Baptists to find alternatives to air travel and to call airlines to let them know why. Comparing it to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the 1950s, he said, "We've got to go to the airlines and make it hurt."

Some have begun boycotting. Sitting in the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg after an evening prayer session last week, Lubna Malik, 50, of Laytonsville said her mother, who lives in Pakistan, has refused to visit the United States since the procedures took effect.

Riaz Ali, 44, another congregant, nodded.

"I'm not going to fly," he said. "I've already told the company that I work for that, except when it's absolutely necessary, I'm going to drive. A lot of Muslims feel this way."

But Faiza Coleman-Salako, 36, of Laurel said in a phone interview that although the scanning "negates all the efforts I've made as a Muslim woman to protect my modesty," she would probably go through with it.

"If it is necessary and is something that is going to keep me and my three children safe," she said, "then it is something that I have to endure."

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