The Transportation Security Administration recently posted on its website a notice about some of the religious activities the traveling public may see in airports during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Muslim fliers may be seen praying, using prayer beads, and abstaining from food and drink. The purpose of TSA’s notice is to limit undue suspicion of Muslims who are observing Ramadan.
This was a well-meaning effort from TSA, but it left me asking – who is making these decisions about communications to the public? The recent pen-knife debacle was fueled in no small part by a total absence of public education as to why TSA proposed removing small blades from the banned item list. Yet, with Ramadan in full swing, TSA is out there with a message on what not to fear. There is a persistent suspicion of Muslims in the United States, and TSA’s educational effort could limit reports of non-threatening activity, thus keeping TSA officers focused on viable threats.
However, there are some big problems with this notice to travelers. For example, TSA says the flying public should not be alarmed if they see a Muslim person not eating or drinking. The notice does not elaborate on how a Muslim might be identified, but that aside, how does one notice someone not doing something? Would a member of the flying public become alarmed because a person sitting at the gate isnot eating a $7 bagel? “Excuse me, TSA agent. There’s a man over there without a bottle of Pepsi. I think he’s plotting something.” Clearly, this portion of TSA’s notice has no value in terms of limiting unwarranted reports of suspicious activity.
But it’s worse than that. TSA’s notice is overly simplistic in its description of Muslim religious activity, which could lead to future misunderstandings and unwarranted reports. What is more, despite its good intention, it actually more firmly links Islam with the U.S. aviation security mission, also potentially contributing to an undue suspicion of Muslims. I recently published an article on Defense Media Networkthat explores some of these problems.
TSA’s Notice to Fliers About Ramadan – Good Intentions and Unintended Consequences
It is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of reflection, fasting and prayer for Muslims. During daylight hours, those observing Ramadan do not eat or drink and may be more frequently in prayer. With heightened religious activity, however, could also come irrational fear and suspicion from non-Muslims. So says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in a notice to air travelers about flying during Ramadan.
“TSA understands that this is a significant religious event for the Muslim community,” reads a Traveler Information notice on TSA’s website, posted on July 2. “The TSA has reminded its security workforce that traveling passengers may be observed at various areas in the airport…engaged in religious practices and meditations during Ramadan. TSA would also like to inform the traveling public that they may notice passengers who are observing Ramadan engaging in the following activities at the airports.”
The notice goes on to list numerous innocuous activities that should not alarm passengers. Certainly, TSA’s notice is well-meaning, and it has won some thanks from various Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Though delivered with the best intentions, however, TSA’s informational effort is woefully insufficient to educate the public and could actually contribute to unwarranted suspicion of Muslim travelers in the future.