July 2004
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Day July 22, 2004

Recent airline flight “scares”, vigilence vs. paranoia, and the value of learning about Islam

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Annie Jacobsen’s article on Women’sWallStreet.com, concerning her terrifying flight from Detroit to Los Angeles. In the article, she describes how 14 Middle Eastern men acted in ways she and the other passengers considered scary and suspicious. Ultimately, Jacobsen ends up questioning “whether the United States of America can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats.”

This is indeed a weighty question, and not easy to answer. But it’s worth asking, as well, whether we’re entirely too scared, and too willing to curb our own rights. Because all of the evidence suggests that nothing really happened on Northwest Airlines flight #327. The 14 Middle Eastern men turned out to be Syrian singer Nour Mehana and his band, headed to San Diego to play a gig at the Sycuan Casino and Resort.

Sometimes, as Jacobsen implies, terrorists might in fact disguise themselves as musicians, sure. But sometimes, Middle Eastern men who are carrying violin cases might just turn out to be musicians. There are terrorists out there in the world, and it’s important to be vigilant. But sometimes, we believe behavior is “suspicious” because we’re simply unfamiliar with it. Jacobsen, and several other posts about similar “scares,” felt it was suspicious that the men serially went to the bathroom several times during the flight. Others have felt it suspicious that Middle Eastern men come onboard with long, rolled cloth tubes.

In these cases, it appears that the “suspicious” behavior or objects were related to prayer. Muslims pray 5 times a day: dawn, midday, late afternoon, sunset, and late night. On Jacobsen’s flight, the timing of boarding and departure would have meant that the Muslims on the flight would be needing to make their midday prayers after boarding, and their late afternoon prayer shortly before arrival. Before prayers, Muslims will be seen performing ablutions (i.e., washing hands and face, and if possible, more extensive preparations). During the prayer itself, the worshipper must orient themselves as closely as practicable to Mecca (the practice of qiblah). This can be difficult to do sitting in an airplane seat, so Muslims praying while traveling will frequently use the restroom for ablutions and stand at the rear of the airplane so they are free to orient themselves towards Mecca. And normally, Muslims will travel with a prayer rug — rolled into a tube for carrying. This rug is used whenever possible for the prayer, but isn’t strictly required (if I recall correctly, it’s more important to do the prayer than it is to skip it because you can’t roll out your rug and kneel). The “little red book” consulted by one of the men in Jacobsen’s story is obviously the Koran, used during the prayers themselves (which involve the recitation of one or more surahs, or verses). For those interested, here’s a detailed description of Salat, or Islamic prayer.

My point is simply this. Sure, we have to be on the lookout for situations which are amiss when traveling. Vigilance is critical to safety and security. But in order to detect truly suspicious behavior, our knowledge of “normal” behavior needs to be strengthened. We need to recognize Muslim prayer when we see it. We need to know more about people and cultures which are generally unfamiliar to Americans.

I don’t mean to minimize the possible dangers of future hijackings, or of terror in general. But I am saying that it’s insane to twitch every time someone of Middle Eastern descent moves a muscle on an airplane flight. If the people on Annie Jacobsen’s plane knew a little about Islam, perhaps they wouldn’t have spent four hours frozen in terror at the sight of some Middle Eastern musicians praying to Mecca, while on their way to play the evening show. And maybe they wouldn’t be so riddled with fear that they’re ready to give up their civil liberties so easily.