What to Do if You Face Anti-Muslim Discrimination at Airport Security

September 10, 2021 Off By Tatiana Walk-Morris

For many Muslim people, being profiled by airport security became a regular part of traveling in the two decades after the September 11 attacks and establishment of the Transportation Security Administration. Even after 20 years of experiencing Islamophobia at the airport, it can still be difficult to know what to do about it when you’re put on the spot.

People experience travel discrimination in ways both subtle and overt. Although Tasmiha Khan has TSA PreCheck, she arrives at the airport two or three hours earlier than she otherwise would because she has been delayed by the TSA so many times.One experience particularly stands out to her: In December 2019, she, her husband, her mother, and her baby were stopped at a checkpoint. “[My mom and I] both had hijabs on,” said Khan, who is based in Illinois. “It was just so clear that we were singled out.” TSOs asked her to go through a body scanner, and when she said she didn’t feel comfortable with that, they told her they needed to pat her down. “It was humiliating,” Khan said, and the unease and worry around being profiled by TSOs pervades each trip to the airport. “Every time, I just dread flying, because you have to go through that experience,” Khan said. “If there’s an option not to fly, I’ll take it, because being visibly Muslim makes me a target.”

Khan’s encounter is part of a broader pattern of Islamophobia that can come with drastic consequences. Muslim travelers continue to face discrimination at TSA checkpoints, complaint records obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests show. Complaints between January 2015 and February 2020 detail discriminatory behavior by Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) toward Muslim travelers, including prejudiced comments, invasive searches, and detentions, in at least 75 documented cases.

According to TSA basic training documents VICE obtained via FOIA request, trainees are to remain polite but vigilant, and not to raise their voice or use body language that shows anger or frustration with travelers. They’re also made aware that hijabs and burqas are non-form fitting headwear that could conceal prohibited items, but travelers aren’t required to remove them for religious reasons. However, the complaints VICE obtained depicted subtle and blatant discrimination and invasive searches during TSA screenings. Some complaints detailed instances in which passengers were patted down unnecessarily, subjected to Islamophobic remarks (one traveled alleged that a TSO told them, “I don’t like hijabs”), and searched invasively, including one instance where a traveler’s breasts were searched. 

A TSA spokesperson said in a statement that its screenings are “conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability” and pointed to its website for information on its screening procedures and cultural sensitivity guidelines. 

Though these complaints offer a window into the mistreatment Muslims experience at airports, legal experts told VICE that far more discriminatory incidents go unreported. Research suggests that Islamophobic hate crimes and discrimination remain prevalent across the country, at the airport as well as their wider lives: According to a 2021 Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) report, the organization documented more than 6,000 complaints in 2020 alone, most of which pertained to discrimination. 

Experts spoke to VICE about the challenges associated with filing travel discrimination complaints, where people experiencing Islamophobic treatment from TSA employees can file those complaints, and how documenting these experiences can ultimately help protect other people from going through similar mistreatment. If you ever experience discrimination while traveling and have questions about filing a complaint, here’s what you need to know.

If you experience travel discrimination, try to collect as much information as you can in the moment.

A “Know Your Rights” fact sheet from CAIR outlines what information to gather following travel discrimination incidents, but in general, the organization recommends asking for and jotting down the names and ID numbers of people involved in the situation. You can also ask TSOs involved whether they’ve singled you out on the basis of your name, appearance, race, faith or other country of origin, and you may also want to get the contact information of any witnesses around you, as CAIR’s guidelines suggest. 

If you decide to submit a complaint, you should include as many details as possible, such as the airline name, flight number, the approximate time, names of any witnesses, and the name of the TSA employee involved, said Sanaa Ansari, staff attorney of Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization that provides legal, educational and policy resources. It can be tough to document an incident in a quick and stressful situation, but do your best to write down these details in your phone, on a piece of paper, or both, Ansari said.

Decide where you’ll file the complaint. 

Travelers who experience discrimination from airport officials can file a complaint with the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, or all three, Ansari said. If you want to file a TSA complaint, she recommended doing so as soon as possible, because TSA requires people to file within 180 days to consider the complaint—and because doing so quickly can help you remember key details that can help your case. 

One thing to be aware of is whether your citizenship might affect the way you report. If you’re seeking citizenship in the U.S., filing a discrimination complaint means sharing your personal information with the TSA, which is part of a network of multiple government agencies and might make you feel worried about additional scrutiny. 

Don’t want to complain to a government agency? Civil rights organizations like Muslim Advocates can provide legal assistance or representation if you choose to sue the agencies, Ansari said. Similarly, Abbas said CAIR has represented and heard from people who had their phones seized by customs when entering the country, people stranded in other countries after being placed on a no-fly list, and even people who left the country because of U.S. government harassment. 

Filing a lawsuit comes with its own challenges, though. Pursuing a lawsuit takes time and resources even if you have help, said Matthew Callahan, a former Muslim Advocates attorney. Callahan also said that some people who sought the organization’s help with filing lawsuits had concerns about their names potentially becoming public because of them, which they worried might cause their employers and their peers to view them suspiciously.

Know that exercising your rights and taking action can ultimately help others, too. 

Ultimately, one of the reasons many Muslim people don’t file complaints about discriminatory treatment is because they don’t want to carry the weight of acknowledging it, Abbas said, which unfortunately insulates the government from being held accountable for violating people’s rights.

“Being targeted and discriminated against by TSA or law enforcement can be a humiliating, frustrating and exhausting experience,” Ansari said. “I wouldn’t at all be surprised if someone who went through that just wanted to do their best to put it all behind them.” But Muslim Advocates encourages Muslim people to file discrimination complaints even if they’re skeptical anything will come of those complaints, Ansari added. 

“One of the positive legacies of the past 20 years is that American Muslims have spoken out and claimed a place in public life like never before. This has meant running for public office, simply educating others about the American Muslim experience, or even filing a discrimination complaint,” Ansari said. “By filing a discrimination complaint, you are doing your part to bring injustice to light. Without people speaking out about TSA and law enforcement discrimination, groups like Muslim Advocates would not know about the problem and would not be able to help others who are also affected.”

One of the most crucial tools for understanding governmental screening practices and how other Muslims experience them is filing complaints, Abbas said. “The only way possible for the federal government to stop constantly harassing Muslims while they travel is for the constantly harassed Muslims to fight back," Abbas said. While it may feel risky or pointless to file a complaint, that change won’t happen unless people speak out. If you can do so safely, make yourself heard.

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