x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

US Muslim hotel employee alleges prejudice

A hotel in Washington cites national security as a defence in a lawsuit brought by a Muslim employee who claims the hotel discriminated against him because of his religion.

WASHINGTON // A hotel in Washington cites national security as a defence in a lawsuit brought by a Muslim employee who claims the hotel discriminated against him because of his religion.

Lawyers for the employee, Mohamed Arafi, said the defence was "unprecedented" and argued the hotel management was in violation of anti-discrimination laws.

The Council for American-Islamic Relations (Cair), which is handling the case on Mr Arafi's behalf, also said the case was symptomatic of a wider problem in America of growing complaints of discrimination by Muslim-American employees.

The hotel, the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel, said it was simply abiding by a government directive when preventing Mr Arafi, a valet dry cleaner, from performing his duties for a visiting Israeli delegation last year.

Jay F Krupin, a lawyer for the hotel, rejected any suggestion of discrimination and said the case should be dismissed as "frivolous".

The US District Court for the District of Columbia is deciding whether to allow the suit to proceed.

The hotel filed its motion to dismiss on November 28, and claimed there was no case to answer because it was acting on directions from the State Department. The State Department had reviewed staff ahead of the visit of the Israeli delegation in December 2010, according to court papers filed by the hotel, and asked that Mr Arafi, along with a few others, be kept from servicing the delegation.

Mr Arafi, a nationalised US citizen from Morocco, would normally work every floor in the hotel, including the two floors where the Israeli delegation was staying. But during the stay, he kept working the other floors and lost no hours. Lawyers for the hotel have argued that this shows Mr Arafi suffered no material losses as a result of the restriction.

Lawyers for Mr Arafi argue it only showed there were no real security concerns, and the only reason he could have been restricted from aiding the Israeli delegation was because of his religion and hotel concerns that would somehow offend the Israeli guests.

The State Department would not comment on the case. An official said, however, that it was common practice for diplomatic security to perform security checks for visiting diplomatic delegations and that in some circumstances, "access may be restricted".

Such decisions would not be made "on the basis of ethnicity, religion or political background", the official said.

Mr Gadeir Abbas, a Cair staff attorney, said that so far the hotel had not provided evidence that the State Department had directed the hotel to restrict Mr Arafi's movements during the Israeli delegation's stay.

"It's just their lawyer saying this is what happened, which they know is not enough to satisfy the court."

Moreover, Mr Abbas said, the defence was trying to turn the case into an issue of security clearances. But, he said, the case was not about the government's discretionary powers to grant or deny security clearances.

"This is about a hotel excluding its Muslim employees and discriminating against them, not because they don't have security clearances but because, for whatever reason, the hotel decided to exclude them from providing services to the hotel's guests."

Nevertheless, should the hotel provide evidence that the State Department had directed the hotel to exclude certain employees, the courts were unlikely to compel the government to explain its decision, said civil-rights lawyers.

And while the government rarely interferes in private companies, with visiting diplomatic delegations, the State Department may get involved, said, Arthur Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"I would guess the State Department would resist explaining itself. In general, the [Supreme] Court has said that where matters of national security are involved, not much explanation is required."

The ACLU has protested this lack of transparency because it can lead to abuses of power. Mr Spitzer said there had been several cases where employees have alleged that they were unlawfully sacked by government agencies as a result of losing security clearances, but have had little recourse.

"The government simply says 'we don't have to tell you why we took away your security clearance', and the courts say 'we can't force them to'. So it's very unfortunate."

Mr Abbas said Mr Arafi's case was a "microcosm" of a broader problem in America, where anti-Islamic sentiment has blown hot and cold since the September 11 attacks 10 years ago.

Hate crimes against Muslims in America have been rising. In 2010, according to the FBI's annual report on hate crimes, actions motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice rose to 160 from 107 in 2009, or nearly 50 per cent. By comparison, anti-Jewish hate crimes have decreased by almost 5 per cent, but were the most common with 887 recorded incidents in 2010. Hate crimes against other non-Christian religions remained about even, with 123 incidents in 2010, up slightly from 109 in 2009.

In general, said Mr Abbas, "American Muslims are often times treated as objects of suspicion because of their faith".

Mr Abbas said allegations of discrimination in the workplace now constitute one of the two largest "buckets of complaints" with which Cair deal. The other is encounters with law enforcement.

In December, he said, the organisation had received two separate complaints from different states, both dealing with female employees who said they were unlawfully fired for wearing the hijab.

In November, 34 Muslim drivers said they were unfairly suspended over a dispute with their rental car company on prayers in Seattle, while a Muslim employee with a supermarket chain in Los Angeles alleged he was fired after going on Haj and because he was a Muslim.

Employment discrimination disputes were less high profile than airport security incidents, which often garner wider media coverage. In most cases, young men assumed to be Muslims find themselves removed from aircraft because of complaints from jittery passengers or crew.

In November, eight Emirati students were removed from a plane on its way from North Carolina to Washington after the pilot alerted airport security. The eight, all men in their early 20s, were eventually allowed back onto the same flight after a five-hour delay.

okarmi@thenational.ae