When Muslim chaplain Tahera Ahmad requested a diet soda during a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington, the response she received left her in tears. But the events that transpired afterward led to an outpouring of support on social media and to a call to boycott the airline.
Ms. Ahmad, who wears a headscarf, said she requested an unopened can of diet soda for “hygienic reasons,” but the flight attendant replied that she couldn’t do that because the can could be used as a weapon. The man sitting next to Ahmad, however, was handed an unopened can of beer, Ahmad said. When Ahmad sought support from passengers around her, a man responded with profanity-laced Islamophobic diatribe, she said.
Ahmad, who is the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says the incident is indicative of the Islamophobia present in the United States.
Moments after the incident took place, the frustrated Ahmad took to her Facebook page to detail the incident.
“I can’t help but cry on this plane because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay. #IslamophobiaISREAL,” she wrote.
The response was quick and, from at least some social media users, powerful. A #unitedfortahra hashtag began trending on Twitter.
United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart told the Guardian that the airline would contact Ahmad in order to “get a better understanding of what occurred during the flight.” He also said the airline would discuss the alleged incident with Shuttle America, its partner company that operated the flight.
In another statement, though, United described the incident as a “misunderstanding regarding a can of diet soda.” Ahmad responded by writing another post saying she was “truly disappointed” by the way the airline had “dismissed my entire narrative and trivialized it to a can of soda.”
Federal Aviation Administration policy forbids carrying unopened alcoholic beverages on a flight, but it does not appear to have a specific “unopened can” regulation, the Guardian reported.
Ahmad told the Chicago Sun-Times that she did receive an apology from the flight attendant on behalf of herself and the other passenger. After the flight landed, the pilot also apologized and walked Ahmad to a service desk to file a formal complaint.
Ahmad was traveling to Washington to attend a conference aimed to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together to promote peace and dialogue.
"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."