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Do airport full body scanners violate Islam?

As full body scanners make their O'Hare Airport debut Monday, two groups say the devices – which image a person's body – are immodest, and therefore are inconsistent with Islam.

By Staff writer / March 15, 2010

Eddie Mayenschein, a Transportation Security Administration official, stands in front of O'Hare Airport's first full body scanner in Chicago Monday. Critics, including two Islamic groups, say the technology is too invasive.

M. Spencer Green/AP

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Chicago

As full body scanners debut at O’Hare International Airport Monday, two American Muslim groups have suggested that the technology violates the teachings of Islam.

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The comments are just the latest controversy surrounding full-body scanners, which some critics call a “virtual strip search” because the technology sees through clothing to show the contours of a passenger’s body in detail.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has deployed 150 scanners across 21 US airports this month, partly in response to the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner, where bombmaking materials were hidden in a passenger’s underwear – something full-body scanners would have seen.

The TSA expects to install an additional 300 scanners in nine additional airports by the end of this year. But security officials say they will be able to accommodate the wishes of passengers – Muslim or otherwise – who object to the full-body screener.

The technology is “completely optional for all passengers,” says Jim Fotenos, a TSA spokesman, and those who choose not to participate get “an equal level of screening,” which includes a walk through a metal detector and a physical pat-down by an officer of the same sex.

Islamic objections

The screening imagery is a violation of Islam, says The Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic scholars located in Plainfield, Ind. Last month the council issued a statement that said the full body imagery “is against the teachings of Islam, natural law, and all religions and cultures that stand for decency and modesty.”

“It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women,” the statement continued. “There must be a compelling case for the necessity and the exemption to this rule must be proportional to the demonstrated need.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group, agrees with the Fiqh Council and, according to National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, it plans to track Muslims concerns with the scanners before deciding what actions to take next.

“Modesty is a basic principal of the Islamic faith, it’s very important and always has been,” says Mr. Hooper. “People say, ‘I’ll do anything for safety,’ but that’s not the question. Everybody wants to be safe. Muslims fly like anybody else … you can be safe and secure and still maintain your privacy rights.”

'A fuzzy photo negative'

To stress the anonymity of the process, the TSA says officers review the images in a remote location and never see the actual passengers. What they do see via their monitors is automatically deleted from the system once the passenger passes review.

According to the TSA website, what officers see of a passenger’s body either resembles “a chalk drawing” or “a fuzzy photo negative,” depending on the machine, therefore suggesting passenger privacy is ensured.

The Fiqh Council, however, is urging followers to request pat-down searches as an alternative.

CAIR’s Mr. Hooper also advocates an increase in federal funding for alternate screening technologies that do not require visual screening, such as the "Puffer,” a machine that can identify chemical particles a person may have on their body and analyze whether or not they are harmful.

The TSA’s Fotenos says the current options “shouldn’t substantially impact operations at checkpoints,” saying TSA research at 19 US airports shows gate delays are primarily caused by carry-on baggage checks.

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