What began as a request for a diet soda on a United Airlines flight drove Muslim chaplain Tahera Ahmad to tears.
In a post made Friday to Facebook, Ahmad, director of interfaith engagement and associate champlain at Northwestern University, said that after she requested an unopened diet soda for "hygienic reasons," she was told unopened cans were prohibited because they could be used as a weapon on the flight.
After she disputed the discrepancy between the opened can she received and the unopened beer a man sitting nearby was handed, Ahmad says another passenger called her "you Muslim" and told her to "shut the fuck up" twice.
Whether or it's United policy not to give customers unopened beverages, it seems like there was no reason to expect Ahmad planned to use it as a weapon except for a discriminatory attitude. (Even if she was, a can of soda is hardly more dangerous than any random heavy object anyone could pack on a carry-on.)
In a statement to CNN, Charles Hobart, a United spokesman, said the interaction was a misunderstanding and that "We and our partners do not discriminate against our employees or customers."
Ahmad told CNN both the flight attendant and the pilot later apologized, with the flight attendant admitting she had acted rudely and telling her the other passenger should not have said anything. She also told CNN she had previously been a victim of Islamophobic discrimination in the past, both via verbal comments and by having her hijab ripped off after Sept. 11.
"I'm not doing this to go after United Airlines. This is about bigotry and racism and our country is going through a very difficult time right now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others worked so hard," Ahmad told CNN. "They strove so hard so that Americans would not mistreat each other on the basis of the color of their skin or religious or ethnic background but I guess we're still on that journey."
After Ahamd posted the incident to Facebook, social media users defended her using the #unitedfortahera hashtag on Twitter and lambasted her fellow passengers for not standing up for her.
While it might be reasonable to conclude that the original incident between her and the flight attendant was a mix-up exacerbated by a bad attitude, the alleged hateful remarks by the other passenger demonstrate what many Muslims already know to be true.
A poll by Zogby from the Arab American Institute released last year found that just 27% of Americans had a favorable view of Muslims, while 42% said that believing in the Islamic faith would interfere with a Muslim's ability to perform government work and an equal percentage supported racial profiling of Arab- or Muslim Americans.
Collective punishment is never the answer, and people like Ahmad deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that other Americans receive by default.