United apologizes for treatment of Muslim chaplain on flight

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A Muslim chaplain who was told by an attendant on a United Airlines flight that she couldn’t have an unopened can of soda because she might “use it as a weapon” received a formal apology Wednesday from the airline right before a national Muslim group held a news conference about the incident.

The treatment that Northwestern University associate chaplain Tahera Ahmad endured Friday on a United flight operated by Shuttle America was nothing short of racist, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations charged Wednesday afternoon.

Along with Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, the group on Wednesday morning publicly condemned the derogatory comments made to Ahmad, demanding United formally apologize and take action to prevent such mistreatment in the future.

“By definition, discrimination is not so much about a given [airline’s] policy, but the unequal application of the stated policy. And that is precisely what occurred here,” CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab said.

“Tahera Ahmad was denied an unopened can of soda, whereas the gentleman next to her was permitted an unopened can of beer. When Ms. Ahmad objected to the double standard, she was subsequently told by the flight attendant that it was because ‘you would use it as a weapon.’ ”

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Chicago-based United capitulated on most of the group’s demands, just as CAIR and Ahmad took their case before the media.

“While United did not operate the flight, Ms. Ahmad was our customer and we apologize to her for what occurred on the flight,” the airline said in a statement. “After investigating this matter, United has ensured that the flight attendant, a Shuttle America employee, will no longer serve United customers. United does not tolerate behavior that is discriminatory — or that appears to be discriminatory — against our customers or employees.”

The incident on the United flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., went viral after Ahmad relayed it on Facebook while still on the flight.

Amhad wrote she was in tears after asking a flight attendant if she could have an unopened can of soda rather than the opened one she’d been given. She said the flight attendant replied it was against company policy to hand out unopened cans because they might be used as weapons.

Ahmad said when she pointed out another passenger had been given an unopened can, indicating she felt discriminated against, the attendant told her, “It’s so you don’t use it as a weapon.” She said when she asked other passengers if they had seen what had transpired, a man sitting nearby said, “You Muslim, you need to shut the f— up.” The man added, “Yes you know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the f— up,” Ahmad said.

“At this point I was frightened. I crawled back into my seat in tears and remained silent,” Ahmad told reporters Wednesday.

“No one said anything. The flight attendant did not intervene. After the plane landed, I approached the flight attendant. I explained to her that I was utterly humiliated, because this was not about a can of soda,” Ahmad said. “This was about prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination and bigotry, which should not and cannot be acceptable.”

Schapiro expressed shock and disappointment at the treatment of his staff.

“Tahera Ahmad is . . . one of the few female Muslim chaplains in the country, and an esteemed leader in our community. Yet she was treated with a complete lack of respect,” Schapiro said. “I understand that the flight attendant and pilot both later apologized to Chaplain Ahmad. While that is a first step, it should not be the last.”

Schapiro and CAIR stipulated they wanted United to engage in diversity sensitivity training of its staff to prevent future discrimination.

United’s apology said that already happens: “All of United’s customer-facing employees undergo annual and recurrent customer service training, which includes lessons in cultural awareness. Customer-facing employees for Shuttle America also undergo cultural sensitivity training, and United will continue to work with all of our partners to deliver service that reflects United’s commitment to cultural awareness.”

While United’s capitulation seemed to take the air out of CAIR’s demands, Rehab said the group will not be satisfied until United addresses why the attendant would cite an open-can policy that Shuttle America owner Republic Airways Holdings has admitted doesn’t exist, and United’s policy regarding intervention on a flight when a passenger is being abused.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Rummana Hussain

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