Legal Update: Flying While Muslim

by Ryan Houldin
Civil Rights Attorney, CAIR-Philadelphia

Our country has a history of condemning large groups of people, especially those groups deemed “un-American,” based on the acts of a few. The events of September 11, 2001, combined with our current political climate, have dramatically changed the experience of “flying while Muslim.” No matter the context, being on the receiving end of illegal harassment and discrimination is always a humiliating and dehumanizing experience, even more so during air travel because of its inherent vulnerability, particularly when traveling long distances, stranded in foreign cities, or travelling with young children.

It is axiomatic that maintaining passenger safety is the most important priority during air travel. On the other hand, over-zealous scrutiny amounting to clear civil rights violations not only undermines safety efforts, it violates basic principles upon which this country was founded. During this past year there have been many examples of innocent, law-abiding Muslims removed from planes and unfairly targeted for additional screening as a result of nothing more than paranoia and ignorance.

As a result, it is important to understand what rights you have at airports to help protect your civil liberties. Here is a brief list of what law enforcement can and cannot do in airports:

  • It is illegal for any member of law enforcement to detain, search, or interrogate someone based solely on one’s perceived religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, or sex.
  • However, law enforcement do have the right to detain or search one’s person or baggage while at an airport, provided it is not based on the above-mentioned categories.
  • If you are returning to the country, border officials do have the right to question you about your travel, i.e. where you are coming from, purpose of travel, places you visited, etc.
  • However, any questions outside the scope of your travel are not permitted and you do not have to answer those questions.
  • Pilots can remove someone from a plane if they believe a passenger is a threat to the safety of the flight.

If you believe you were unfairly targeted you should:

  • Write down the names and badge numbers of all law enforcement involved in the incident.
  • Get contact information for anyone who witnessed the incident.
  • Write down a statement of facts as soon as you can, so they are still fresh in your mind.
  • Contact CAIR-Philadelphia immediately.

If you have any questions or would like more information about your rights, please contact me.

And don’t forget to register for Muslim Capitol Day at: