Flight Attendant Treatment of Muslim Passenger Illustrates Tolerance Need

MuslimMany employees and students roll their eyes at the idea of attending yet another diversity training program. However, a recent incident involving a Muslim passenger receiving disrespectful treatment from a flight attendant and others like it illustrates the need for more tolerance training, or at least greater awareness of reasons for religious accommodations.

Diversity programs in companies and schools love to encourage awareness of cultural and religious differences, but they often miss the mark with real life examples of “Dos and Don’ts.” Some like to encourage people to pretend differences do not exist and people are all alike. But, better programs teach differences to be aware of and respect, such as dietary ones. After this week, hopefully, that type of program is what is planned for United Airlines and its partner airlines.

The specific dispute arose when a female passenger, Tahera Ahmad, wearing a hijab asked a flight attendant for an unopened can of soda on a United flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. that was operated by Shuttle America. The Muslim woman, who is a chaplain at Northwestern University, reportedly expressed that her concern was for hygienic reasons, not even religious ones. She was told no.

When the man in the seat next to her was given an unopened can of beer, however, Ahmad protested. She claims she was told no because passengers may use unopened cans of drinks as a weapon. A fellow passenger yelled at her too, commenting derogatorily about her being a Muslim.

Initially the airlines added insult to injury by trivializing the exchange as a “misunderstanding regarding a can of diet soda.” The incident, however, shows just how fearful and angry people are when it comes to people from other backgrounds, especially Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. (The way someone who is a Black Muslim of African American descent is treated usually reflects race more than religion, but is equally concerning given racial incidents in the U.S.)

There is no policy against flight attendants giving passenger the full, unopened beverage can if they want it. They usually open them solely to pour some into a cup for a customer or as a courtesy. So, the whole incident was strange from a customer relations standpoint and, if truly based on her hajib or other aspect of appearance, inexcusable. United did say it has since apologized to Ahmad.

Other companies claim to also train staff and not tolerate discriminatory or religiously insensitive acts. But, how often is pepperoni pizza served to employees who are Jewish, Hindu or vegetarians with dismissive suggestions to pick them off? Or an airline only offering breakfasts with ham or bacon? Then there are major meeting called on Yom Kippur, or staff recognition luncheons during Ramadan or Passover?

One could argue that making special accommodations is discriminatory too. But, how hard it is to use common sense and treat people well – and thoughtfully – whether they are from the same background and religion or any other? The incident on the treatment of the Muslim passenger by the flight attendant illustrates the need for more tolerance and understanding.

By Dyanne Weiss

Los Angeles Times: Flight attendant who denied soda can to Muslim will no longer serve customers
NBC News: Airline Apologizes After Muslim Chaplain Denied Unopened Can of Soda
CBS Chicago: Flight Attendant Who Refused Muslim Chaplain Unopened Can Will No Longer Serve United Customers

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