Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Blog

By Lama Al-Arian
Summer 2013 Intern
On July 8th the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sent out a memo informing travelers that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins Tuesday, and passengers should not be alarmed if they see devout Muslims partaking in what TSA believes could be misconstrued as suspicious activities such as performing prayers aboard planes, and washing up in airport bathrooms.  

The memo, most amusingly attempts to prepare passengers for tasbih, the devotional practice of using prayer beads for prayer: “passengers observing Ramadan may carry prayer beads and “whisper” prayers constantly.”

"TSA has reminded its security workforce that traveling passengers may be observed at various areas in the airport – including security checkpoints or on aircraft – engaged in religious practices and meditations during Ramadan." While TSA is right to explain to passengers that people observing religious practices in public does not constitute a potential threat to their safety, the fact that this memo had to be create d in the first place is problematic and in many ways underscores the potent culture of fear in post-9/11 society.

It is also interesting that TSA finds it necessary to warn passenger not to profile fellow travelers based on behavior when the TSA itself continues to practice the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. Started in 2007, SPOT implements discriminatory techniques to screen airport passengers. As of 2012, more than 3,000 behavior detection officers (BDOs) have been deployed to 176 US airports to look for preselected facial expressions, body language, and appearances that the program lists as suspicious. There have been a number of profiling allegations, namely allegations of racial and ethnic profiling: in June 2011, allegations of profiling surfaced in Newark Liberty International Airport; in November 2011, there were allegations that TSA BDOs were targeting Mexican travelers for extra screening in Honolulu; and in August 2012, the “Assessor Screening Technique” implemented at Boston Logan Airport led to more than 30 federal officers filing complaints of racial profiling.   

The SPOT program does not come without any critics. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), has called for its termination. AAI Executive Director Maya Berry wrote a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano calling for the termination of the SPOT program. “Beyond SPOT’s cost and inefficacy, we are deeply troubled by its embrace of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling as a way to identify potential terrorists,” wrote AAI Executive Director Maya Berry.    

While this Ramadan travel memo seems to be intended to raise awareness among travelers about religious practices, TSA needs to do a better job within its own ranks to identify threats to security without implementing programs like SPOT which have a troubling record of profiling and discriminating against people belonging to certain ethnic and religious groups.

comments powered by Disqus