A demonstrator shouts and carries a 'Stop Islam' sign while another rips pages out of a Quran during a 'Freedom of Speech Rally Round II' outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, Arizona. (photo: Nancy Wiechec/Reuters)
05 April 16
Washington DC woman was recently threatened with arrest by a DC Public Library police officer (yes, the DC library system has its own police force) because she was wearing a hijab, the head covering worn by millions of Muslim women around the world.
An eyewitness and neighborhood activist told a local listserve, “All I heard was he started asking her to take off her hijab. The man next to her spoke up, but the officer continued to harass her. Ultimately, he came toward her in an intimidating way, pulled out his handcuffs, and said if she didn’t take off the hijab, she had to leave.” She left.
DC Library officials apologized to the woman, who was never identified, and transferred the officer, pending an investigation. The officer later told the Huffington Post that he didn’t know what a hijab was. He thought it was a hoodie. “It was not a religious hat that I know [of]. I asked her to take her hoodie off and told her, ‘if you’re not going to take it off, you have to leave.’ So I pulled out my handcuffs and then she got up and she left.” This untrained ignoramus has the power to arrest a person because she wouldn’t take her “hat” off.
The incident comes on the heels of yet another instance of a Muslim family being removed from a United Airlines flight for, well, being Muslim. That happened on Sunday. Three weeks ago, two other Muslim women were removed from a Jet Blue flight for speaking Arabic to each other. The flight attendant decided that she “wasn’t comfortable” with that. Two months earlier, three Muslims and a Sikh – all American citizens, and one of whom was sound asleep – were forced off an American Airlines flight from Toronto to New York without explanation. After the flight departed, without them, they were finally told that the captain “felt uneasy and uncomfortable with their presence on the flight and as such, refused to fly unless they were removed from the flight.” He just didn’t like their “looks.”
These things seem to happen so routinely nowadays that they barely command the mainstream media’s attention. And they almost never warrant much more than a few paragraphs.
One on hand, the problem is obvious. The United States is a country in which anti-Muslim prejudice is rampant. On the other hand, it’s a much deeper problem than meets the eye. Americans as a people are, by and large, inexcusably ignorant of other cultures.
I thought in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered by a Boeing mechanic who had told friends that he was going to “go out and shoot some towelheads,” that the attack was an anomaly. It wasn’t. There have been dozens of attacks on mosques, Muslims, and people confused for Muslims across the country since 2001.
This is a failure of the U.S. education system. Americans, admittedly, are less worldly and less well-traveled than the citizens of many of our European allies. That may be a function of the fact that we’re separated from much of the rest of the world by two oceans. But that’s no excuse for being ignorant, for being stupid. We learn less about other cultures in our schools. We generally don’t delve into other religions at all. I earned a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from a first-tier university and never had to take a single class on Islam. I did so on my own volition.
If we’re going to get past this bigoted ignorance of others, other Americans, it has to start in our schools. It has to start when our educations begin. It has to continue through our college years. It must be addressed in the mainstream media. And it should have started years ago.
John Kiriakou is an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is a former CIA counterterrorism operations officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.