Muslim passenger denied Coke on US flight over security fears

A Muslim-American chaplain said she asked for an unopened can of Diet Coke, but the flight attendant refused her citing fears she could 'use it as a weapon'.
File photo of a United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner touching down at San Francisco International Airport in California. A Muslim-American chaplain at Chicago’s Northwestern University, alleged that a United flight attendant refused to serve her an unopened can due to discrimination.  Louis Nastro/Reuters
File photo of a United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner touching down at San Francisco International Airport in California. A Muslim-American chaplain at Chicago’s Northwestern University, alleged that a United flight attendant refused to serve her an unopened can due to discrimination. Louis Nastro/Reuters

New York // A simple request for an unopened can of Diet Coke on a United Airlines flight left one woman in tears over the weekend, and led to calls by Muslim Americans to boycott the airline over charges of discrimination.

Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim-American chaplain at Chicago’s Northwestern University, alleged in a Facebook post that quickly went viral that a flight attendant refused to serve her an unopened can and was “clearly discriminating against me”.

Ms Ahmad, who wears a hijab, wrote that she asked for an unopened can for reasons of hygiene, but that the attendant refused, saying, “We are unauthorised to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon”.

However, the attendant gave a passenger next to her an unopened can of beer, Ms Ahmad alleged.

When she asked for an explanation for the discrepancy, she claimed the attendant repeated that it was a potential weapon. Ms Ahmad protested that she was being discriminated against, but what happened next left her in tears.

“You Muslim, you need to shut the f** up,” said a passenger sitting across the aisle from her, according to Ms Ahmad. “Yes you know you would use it as a weapon so shut the f** up.”

Ms Ahmad is a well-known Muslim-American voice who was honoured at the White House last year as a “leading Muslim female in the United States”, according to her biography on the Northwestern website. She was traveling to an event in Washington DC that promotes dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth.

A United spokesman, Charles Hobart, declined to say whether the airline was taking action against the alleged derogatory remarks by passengers or if it has a policy against unopened cans.

Republic, a United partner airline that owns Shuttle America, which operated the flight, did not respond to questions about its policies.

In a statement, United said that the attendant “attempted several times to accommodate Ms Ahmad’s beverage request” and termed the incident a “misunderstanding”. United representatives spoke with Ms Ahmad on Saturday “to get a better understanding of what occurred and to apologise for not delivering the service our customers expect”.

However, Ms Ahmad said the statement was insufficient.

“United has dismissed my entire narrative and trivialised it to a can of soda … I have been served unopened canned beverages many times and I have followed United procedures in all of my travels,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “It is truly disheartening when the discrimination of Americans [such] as myself who are working hard everyday to promote dialogue and understanding is disregarded and trivialised.”

The experience was particularly demeaning because she was “publicly targeted as a threat to people”, Ms Ahmad told the Chicago Sun newspaper. “That is a very horrible feeling.”

She said the attendant apologised for her fellow passenger’s abusive language and the flight’s pilot also apologised and helped her file a complaint at the airport.

The incident is another in a long list of discrimination against Muslims, or those who appear to others to be Muslim, on domestic flights in the US.

It comes at a time of increasing hysteria in conservative media outlets and by Republican presidential hopefuls about the security threat posed by Muslims. Armed white supremacist biker gangs protested outside a Phoenix, Arizona, mosque during the prayer service on Friday, which observers pointed to as a result of the current atmosphere.

On social media Muslim Americans and others said they would boycott United.

“So @united: Your public statement can’t use words like ‘misunderstanding’ to gloss over real issue at hand: discrimination. #unitedfortahera”, tweeted Arshe Ahmed, an affiliate of Princeton University’s Muslim Life Programme.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: May 31, 2015 04:00 AM

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