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“It’s just a can of soda! What’s the big deal?”

June 05, 2015
It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident of discrimination against Tahera Ahmed in isolation. —Screengrab
It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident of discrimination against Tahera Ahmed in isolation. —Screengrab

When a woman is denied a can of diet coke aboard a United Airlines flight for being a Muslim, we know we’re facing no ordinary news item; we have a veritable litmus test sifting out the raging anti-Muslim bigots from the general population.

Tahera Ahmed, a chaplain at the Northwestern University, asked a flight attendant for an unopened can of diet coke, but was refused service on an excuse that one “may use it as a weapon on the plane”.

Yet, the person next to Tahera was served an unopened can of beer. When she complained, a fellow passenger yelled obscenities at her and accused her of wanting to use the can as a weapon.

While this story of overt discrimination resonates with victims of Islamophobia around the world, it has made Tahera the target of red-hot, hate speech on social media.

It is evident that to an Islamophobe, the only thing less desirable than a Muslim, is a Muslim who refuses to take his or her ‘well-deserved’ social punishment lying down.

Also read: Chinese city bans large beards, wearing hijab

Predictably, the following charges are being levied, and arguments being employed, against Tahera Ahmed in the wake of her resistance:

“She’s lying!”

The first charge is not based on careful examination of the story, but a firm belief that anti-Muslim bigotry is a myth invented by Islamists to garner undeserved sympathy.

One is, therefore, expected to react the same way I react to a person claiming to have spotted a leprechaun in his office cubicle.

“She has ties with radical Islamists”

As it dawns on one that discrimination may indeed have occurred, one proceeds to malign the victim, making it appear that she deserved the humiliation.

Up pops on the Internet, a photograph of Tahera Ahmed standing next to a man who works for an organisation that is run by a parent organisation that happens to run the mosque once attended by the Boston Bomber.

How do you say “busted” in Arabic?

Assuming that is damning evidence of Tahera’s direct association with terrorists, let’s not lose sight of the fact that she wasn’t discriminated against for her exposed link to extremists (she would not have been on a flight otherwise), but simply for her religious identity. How does that make the incident on-board any less condemnable?

“Why did she need an unopened can of diet coke?”

Have you ever been to a diner and had the narrow-eyed waiter interrogate you on why you “need” to have eggs for breakfast. Why not porridge instead? Why not waffles? What devious egg-based plot are you hatching, for which you so specifically order a plate of eggs sunny-side-up?

You may think that you are under no obligation to explain your dietary preferences to your food server. You have a right to order eggs from the menu; the reason being nobody’s business.

But, if you’re a Muslim woman in a hijab aboard a plane, you ostensibly have to issue a formal statement on why you want a can of diet coke, while the non-Muslim passenger next to you insouciantly pops open a can of beer.

Also read: Choosing between religion and justice in a Canadian court

Shuttle America confirmed that it has no specific policy concerning opened or unopened cans aboard an aircraft. This is probably wise, as we wouldn’t want our insecurity regarding soda cans branching out into a discussion on the use of plastic spoons at 30,000 feet up in the sky, with the potential of gouging someone’s eye out.

“It’s just a can of soda! What’s the big deal?”

It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident in isolation as the sum total of the inconvenience a member of a religious minority might face.

It must be understood as a single dot in a vast constellation of injustices, that add up to form a horrifying rash across the face of our sociopolitical order.

Also read: Islamophobia biggest hurdle in fight against terrorism: Nisar

So what if black people aren’t allowed to have cheese-flavoured Pringles?

Or if Native Americans are told not to wear red sneakers?

Doesn’t bigotry cease to be so, if it’s minor enough to elude national media coverage?

Every inch of freedom that we forfeit widens the chasm between the privileged and the marginalised. And we have good reason to believe that the gap is wide enough as it is.