How To Protect Religious Freedom and Keep Our Airports Safe

How To Protect Religious Freedom and Keep Our Airports Safe

The world is looking on right now as Sikh actor and model Waris Ahluwalia faces discrimination at the hand of AeroMexico. His crime? Wearing a turban while flying. As a Muslim American woman who wears the hijab and a coat, I understand all too well how it feels to be harassed and judged while in an airport. It is a horrible feeling to be targeted verbally or to be removed from a flight because of the clothes you wear. But as a law enforcement and airport security staff trainer, I also see the other perspective.

In 2012 and 2013 I spent months training the Houston Police Department, the Houston jail system and TSA staff about how to work effectively with Muslims in their communities. I was brought on specifically for two purposes. The first was to dispel stereotypes of Muslims that police and airport security staff may have, and to educate them about our beliefs and practices. Much of the discussion centered around the hijab and other forms of outward worship that were misunderstood.

The second purpose of the trainings was to discuss ways for the officers and airport staff to do their jobs effectively without offending anyone or attracting negative publicity. This was a very important aspect of the program, as you can imagine. What is the point of teaching about the hijab if airport security cannot come up with ways to view passengers differently?

The same, of course, goes for the Sikh turban. A passenger who is wearing a turban is expressing his deep religious beliefs, which are protected by the constitution. For an airport security officer or airline staffer, however, that turban (or hijab) poses a risk because he cannot see what is inside.

Lumping all people of a faith together is anathema to me as an interfaith activist and trainer. We cannot view all Muslims or Sikhs as potential terrorists if we are to continue to live in a free and peaceful society. But in today's environment we also should be ready to keep our airports and other open public areas safe.

So in my trainings, how exactly do I pose this subject? How do I bridge the divide that often stands between religious freedom on one hand and safety on the other? Our politicians seem to think banning specific groups or putting them under increased surveillance is the answer. I beg to differ. In my law enforcement and airport security trainings I bring home the following point: be safe while being respectful. Don't make a person who is Muslim/Sikh/other feel threatened or humiliated, but do the job you are paid to do.

In terms of law enforcement, this means making sure that female officers are alone with Muslim women before asking them to take off the hijab. In terms of airport security, this means bringing a Sikh or Muslim to a separate area before asking them to remove pieces of clothing that may be against policy. Over the last few years in Houston we were able to change policies and implement procedures in place that allowed for understanding and respect while still making the area safe for everyone.

It goes without saying that law enforcement and airport personnel, including individual airline staff, need extensive cultural sensitivity training. But as Muslims or Sikhs or persons belonging to any other group, we must also be willing to understand the Catch 22 situation that these people are in. My tips are as follows:

• Plan to get to the airport earlier than normal if you think you will be "randomly searched".
• Be patient; understand that policies have to be changed at the top and individual officers and TSA staff cannot change procedure without possibly losing their jobs.
• Advocate for policy change through constitutional means. Approach your local law enforcement and airport staff to remind them of the need for expert cultural sensitivity training.

I as a hijabi Muslim woman or Waris Ahluwalia as a Sikh man are not responsible or answerable for terrorists and criminals. We deserve respect and the freedom to practice our faiths without harassment. I know we all have lots of work to do, and that includes looking at both sides of the story.