Diet Coke request spills into hate campaign against Muslim woman
New York // A Muslim university chaplain humiliated by an airline flight attendant has suffered hate calls and online abuse since her story went public.
“There have been a lot of hateful messages,” Tahera Ahmad told The National. “I’ve been receiving calls at work, my administrative assistant has been receiving hateful calls.”
Her social media accounts have been hacked and someone posing as an airline representative called to spew Islamophobic bile and sexual threats.
The original incident happened last Friday when Ms Ahmad, a chaplain at Northwestern University in Chicago, was flying to Washington to speak at a conference.
She says the attendant on the United Airlines flight refused to give her an unopened can of Diet Coke because it “could be used as a weapon”. When the passenger next to her was given an unopened can of beer, she complained, and a male passenger told her: “You Muslim, you need to shut up. You know you would use it as a weapon, so shut up.”
Ms Ahmad, 31, who was brought up in suburban Chicago, said that in the years since the September 11 attacks she had faced ugly incidents and discrimination many times. Her hijab has been ripped off her head, she has been spat at and hours of questioning by airport security had caused her to miss speaking engagements.
But the incident on Friday, when she was travelling to the Kids4Peace conference that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth, troubles her the most.
“As a Muslim woman I have faced a lot of discrimination before but this one, particularly, was a very hollowing experience,” she said.
At the time she hoped one of the other passengers would speak up in her defence. “I asked people to say something and when it was the exact opposite and they didn’t, it was a wake-up call for me.
“I was in tears and everybody after that acted like nothing happened, and it was then a very uncomfortable atmosphere.”
Most surprising, she said, was that other women on the flight did not take offence to the way she was addressed by the other passenger.
“As a Muslim feminist I wanted the women to support me. What he said to me and the way he said it to me as a woman was very demeaning.”
Ms Ahmad has dedicated her career to creating understanding between American Muslims and broader US society. As well as a chaplain, she is director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern. Last year she was honoured by Barack Obama for her work and she has conducted interfaith workshops at the US state department. In 2013 she became the first woman to give a Quranic recitation at an annual Islamic Society of North America conference.
While many young Muslims of Ms Ahmad’s generation have worked to change perceptions of Islam and Muslims and build bridges between communities, discrimination and fear of Muslims in the US is at an all-time high.
Conservative politicians and media have made fighting “radical Islam” a central plank of their rhetoric, and fringe Islamophobes such as Pamela Geller have gained high profiles by stoking hatred. Last week, biker gangs armed with assault rifles held an anti-Islam rally during Friday prayers at a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ms Ahmad draws a direct line between this atmosphere and her experience on the plane. “I think part of it is you just follow what is happening all over the country right now,” she said.
Following last Friday’s incident, the company operating the United flight said it had no policy on unopened cans.
“With respect to cabin service, there is no policy difference in serving alcoholic or non-alcoholic canned beverages to passengers, no differentiation between opened and unopened cans, and no policy on speculation on what a can may/may not be used for,” said Bob Birge, a spokesman for Republic Airways, which owns the company that operated the United flight, Shuttle America.
United, meanwhile, acknowledged that there was an incident, but said it was a “misunderstanding” about the drink.
However, on Wednesday the company issued a statement saying that the Shuttle America flight attendant involved in the incident “will no longer serve United customers” following an investigation into a complaint by Ms Ahmad.
United spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email that the airline “does not tolerate behavior that is discriminatory – or that appears to be discriminatory – against our customers or employees”.
United’s “customer-facing employees undergo annual and recurrent customer service training, which includes lessons in cultural awareness,” Mr Hobart added.
“While United did not operate the flight, Ms Ahmad was our customer and we apologise to her for what occurred on the flight.”
The statement came after demands from both Ms Ahmad and the president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, for an apology from United.
In an open letter to the company’s chief executive, Mr Schapiro had described the airline’s treatment of his colleague as “outrageous and discriminatory”.
“Tahera Ahmad is the Muslim chaplain at Northwestern, one of the few female Muslim chaplains in the country, and an esteemed leader in our community. Yet she was treated with a complete lack of respect,” he said.
“The extraordinarily unprofessional and humiliating treatment of one of our community members is shockingly disappointing.”
Ms Ahmad said she hoped her experience would be used as a learning point for the entire country.
“We cannot remain silent over these issues any more of blatant discrimination and gloss it over with language of ‘we apologise with the service of the Diet Coke,’” she said. “Are you kidding me? It’s not about that.”
* With additonal reporting by Associated Press