TAHERA Ahmad’s allegations of discrimination on a United Airlines flight over the weekend spread like wildfire.
“People know this isn’t just about a can of diet soda,” she told The Guardian after arriving back in Chicago on June 1. The level of interest, she said, shows “there’s something greater to the story that resonates with many minority groups not only in this country, but all over the world”.
Ahmad, who is a chaplain at Northwestern University, has received support from countless people on every corner of the globe, which she finds to be proof that her experience isn’t uncommon.
“This isn’t about me and a soda can,” she said, “it’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.”
Ahmad had been travelling to speak at a conference that was promoting dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth in Washington DC.
While on her flight to DC on Friday, she requested an unopened can of diet soda, but was told by a flight attendant that it was against policy to give passengers unopened cans because these could be used as weapons.
The flight attendant then gave the man next to her an unopened can of beer prompting Ahmad’s calls of discrimination. Another man across the aisle said to Ahmad, “You Muslim, you need to shut the f... up. You know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the f... up.”
Ahmad recounted the details of her story on her Facebook page while in-flight, sparking global coverage, and leading to calls for a boycott of the airline.
The airline has since released a statement where they call the incident a “misunderstanding regarding a diet soda” and do not label it as discrimination or mention the hate speech.
“I asked United to recognise it as an act of discrimination,” Ahmad said, “my hope was they would say, ‘You know what, this should have never happened and here’s what we are going to do to make sure this never happens to anyone again.’”
But that doesn’t look to be happening, leading Ahmad and her supporters to continue their boycott of United.
According to Ahmad — who filed a formal complaint with United Airlines after exiting the plane with the pilot escorting her to customer service — there will be an investigation into her allegations, but the airline has not yet announced any plans to discuss issues around potential discrimination on their flight.
“They’re basically failing to recognise the humiliation that happened to me,” she told The Guardian. “So I am going to look into options to ensure that of course this type of discrimination doesn’t happen again. Not to minorities, not to anybody else.”
As for the alleged policy of unopened cans that led to this mishap: Shuttle America which was operating the United Airlines flight 3504 that Ahmad was on does not actually have one that discusses cans being used as potential weapons if unopened.
“There is no policy difference in serving alcoholic or non-alcoholic canned beverages to passengers,” says Bob Birge, director of corporate communications at Republic Airways Holdings, which owns Shuttle America, “no differentiation in opened or unopened cans, and no policy speculating what may or may not be done with a container.”
Birge also tells The Guardian they have yet to receive a formal complaint from Ahmad on their end, unlike United Airlines, and cannot further formally address the issue with staff because like beverage services on a flight, “there is a process passengers are expected to follow if they have a complaint or issue they would like addressed”.
“The extraordinarily unprofessional and humiliating treatment of one of our community members is shockingly disappointing,” Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro said in an official statement released on June 1.
As Ahmad’s story continues to garner more attention, she has also begun receiving an enormous amount of hate-filled messages and phone calls.
“Somebody called me and acted like they were a United representative,” Ahmad said. Realising that the caller may not be an actual employee of the airline, Ahmad asked for evidence of his employment. “So he said, ‘What? You don’t believe me? .... I know you Muslims like that’.”
Ahmad’s social media account has also been continually hacked.
The hate hasn’t concerned the woman considered to be a “leading Muslim woman” by the White House. She plans continue using the momentum of her story to elevate the conversation.
In a 2013 study conducted by Pew Research Group, 45 per cent of respondents said that Muslim Americans face “a lot” of discrimination, and 28pc said Muslims are subject to discrimination.
“Ferguson happened, ‘black lives matter’ happened, and what is it these minority groups were saying? They were saying: understand my pain; understand my injustice. There is a lot of pain there,” she continued. “And I think that’s why this story resonates with so many people.”
Ahmad is pushing for United Airlines to call this incident what many have joined her in calling it: discrimination, because “this is just one example of injustice that continues to happen and I cannot remain silent”.
—By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2015