A dispute over a can of soda 30,000 feet above the ground left a woman in tears, spawned a hashtag and provided yet more kindling to the raging debate about Islamophobia in the United States.
It started Friday on a United flight from Chicago to Washington, where Northwestern University chaplain Tahera Ahmad was due to participate in a conference on promoting interfaith dialogue. Ahmad, who is Muslim and wears a headscarf, asked for an unopened can of Diet Coke “for hygienic reasons,” she wrote in an angry Facebook post from the air. She says the flight attendant denied her request, then proceeded to bring an unopened can of beer to the man sitting next to her.
“She said, ‘We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane,'” Ahmad wrote. “So I told her she was clearly discriminating against me because she gave the man next to me an unopened can of beer. She looked at his can, quickly grabbed it and opened it and said, ‘It’s so you don’t use it as a weapon.'”
When Ahmad turned to her fellow passengers for support, she said that one man yelled at her, “You Moslem, you need to shut the f— up.” Ahmad ended the flight “in tears of humiliation,” she wrote, ending her post with the hashtag #Islamophobiaisreal.
Within hours, the post had spawned a flurry of online outrage. Tweeting with the hashtag #UnitedforTahera, people raged against the alleged incident and proposed a boycott of the airline.
— AbdelRahman Murphy (@AbdelRahmanM) May 30, 2015
— Dina (@Bint_AbuAhmed) May 30, 2015
— Rabbi Yonah (@RabbiYonah) May 31, 2015
United issued a statement about the incident Saturday evening, calling it a “misunderstanding.” The airline said it spoke to Ahmad and apologized “for not delivering the service our customers expect when traveling with us.” The statement did not elaborate on the airline’s policy on unopened soda cans or contest Ahmad’s narrative of events.
Nor did it satisfy Ahmad. “Disappointed at dismissal,” she tweeted Sunday.
Though she was frustrated with United’s response, Ahmad said that the flight attendant in question was apologetic.
“The flight attendant also acknowledged that the man who yelled at me was wrong for doing so and apologized that her behavior led to that. She acknowledged it was unethical and said he never should have said anything,” Ahmad told the Chicago Sun-Times. After the flight, the pilot apologized and walked her to the service desk at Reagan National Airport so she could file a complaint.
Ahmad’s dispute with United came amid a wave of incidents, among them, a confrontation between armed anti-Muslim demonstrators and supporters of the faith in Phoenix on Friday and an attack on an inflammatory “Draw Muhammad” contest in May by two heavily armed gunmen who officials said were probably inspired by the Islamic State. A 2013 Pew Research Center Survey found that more than 40 percent of Americans believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
“This is not about a can of soda,” Ahmad wrote in a Facebook post responding to United’s statement, adding that her goal is not to get the flight attendant in question fired. Instead, she said she wants to engage United in a conversation on discrimination, to get them to acknowledge “their accountability and their role in the painful experience and share corrective measures within their training to prevent this from happening again.”