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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A TSA Myth in the Making

There's no Muslim exemption.

“Sexual assault” and “child molestation” are just some of the accusations leveled at the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) revealing scanners and full-body pat-down procedures, which were introduced on November 1.

At long, long last, the public is saying no to the savaging of personal liberty.

But a bizarre attack from a different direction should cause concern for at least two reasons. First, the particular accusation against the TSA is almost certainly incorrect and could dilute the credibility of other criticisms. Second, the attack seems rooted in anti-Muslim fears and feeds back into them.

The rumor: The Department of Homeland Security may exempt Orthodox Muslim women from the sexually invasive scanners and physical exams that others must undergo as a prerequisite of air travel.

On what evidence is the rumor based?

At a November 15 White House briefing, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was asked by a reporter, “On the pat-downs, CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations] has recommended that Muslim women wearing hijabs refuse to go through the full-body pat-down before boarding planes. Will you insist that they do go through full-body pat-downs before boarding planes?”

Napolitano replied, “[A]djustments will be made where they need to be made. With respect to that particular issue, I think there will be more to come.”

However, the next day, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, TSA chief John Pistole clearly stated there would be no exemptions based on religion:

Sen. John Ensign: [L]et’s just say I don’t want either of them [full-body san or pat-down] because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

Pistole: So while I respect and we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.

Ensign: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.

Nevertheless, in the wake of Napolitano’s unwillingness to flatly answer no, parts of the blogosphere and media have exploded with speculation and anger. (See this segment from Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News.) To support the claim that the exemption had been allowed, some websites link to this story, although it does not support the claim.

The issue of Muslim women undergoing security checks has simmered for a long while. Before last week, however, the backlash was almost exclusively from Muslims themselves.

In February Islamic scholars at the Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa stating that Islamic teachings forbade observant Muslims from going through full-body scanners. The only alternative is a pat-down.

On November 10 CAIR, as noted, issued a travel advisory for Muslim women: “Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck…. Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area , and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.”

Thus CAIR’s advisory implies, contrary to the fact, that Muslim women in hijabs are already exempted from the worst aspects of TSA pat-downs.

CAIR’s advisory led the Washington Times of November 17 to editorialize, “Note to terrorists: Next time, wear a hijab. The Department of Homeland Security reportedly is giving special exemptions to their ‘enhanced pat-down’ policy to Muslim women wearing the hijab or other form-concealing garments….”

The Washington Times further speculated, “Exemptions for Muslim women wearing traditional garb may be the brainchild of Mohamed Elibiary, who recently was made a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council…. Mr. Elibiary is … a self-styled ‘de-radicalization expert’ whose star has risen during the Obama presidency…. In December 2004, Mr. Elibiary spoke at a conference honoring the life and works of the ‘great Islamic visionary,’ Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”

Thus, based almost entirely on an impromptu and awkward response by Napolitano, a myth has been constructed and surrounded by “evidence” that amounts to little more than speculation dressed-up with a few cherry-picked statements from Muslim organizations.

The “Muslim exemption” is a dangerous myth because it strengthens the TSA by making its critics appear to be foolish conspiracy theorists. It turns protesters against one another rather than uniting them. And, finally, it feeds a basic source of TSA’s strength: fear and resentment of Muslims.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.