Muslims and other religious leaders called for an end to Islamophobia in the Triangle on Thursday, highlighting a pair of recent events they said show ongoing bias against their faith.
At a press conference, Muslims for Social Justice called on Durham-based Imam Ukkashah Muhammad to share his experience in July aboard an American Airlines flight from Raleigh to Chicago, in which the blind Muslim scholar’s bag was confiscated during his trip to the restroom and removed from the plane without his knowledge.
Muhammad said his bag had cleared security checks and was stowed under his seat, but then taken while a flight attendant led him to the restroom aboard the plane. He said he did not realize it was missing until the plane landed in Chicago, and though the bag contained his wallet and glaucoma medicine, it was not returned for a week.
“This is my normal dress,” said Muhammad, gesturing to his robe and cap. “There’s no mistake if someone sees me. I’m a Muslim.”
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Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesman, apologized for the incident but said records indicate it happened due to a mistake. A member of the flight crew took the bag while Muhammad was in the restroom, thinking it had been left by a previous passenger.
Had there been a security concern, American Airlines would have removed the passenger as well as the bag, Feinstein said. But that was not the case in this incident and Feinstein said American would reach out to Muhammad, who had not contacted the airline. He added that records show the bag was returned to Muhammad in Syracuse three days later.
“We take all these types of allegations seriously,” Feinstein said.
A second speaker, Zohra Oumous, told the crowd of roughly 30 people at the Tarboro Road Community Center that she had been repeatedly denied visitation rights at the Greene County prison where her son is incarcerated because she would not remove her hijab, or head scarf.
The hijab is a symbol of modesty among Muslim women, to be worn in the company of men outside the immediate family. Oumous said she was told to remove it and shake it out, which she declined on visits for a year. After she and Muslims for Social Justice complained to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, she said the agency promised to provide a female corrections officer to perform the checks in private. But this did not happen on her next visit, she said.
Her son, Nourredine Oumos, 27, is serving a 27-year sentence at Maury Correctional Institution for second-degree murder — a 2012 Raleigh homicide she said he did not commit.
“How can they stop a mother to visit her son for a year?” said Oumous, who came from Morocco 12 years ago.
A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety said officials are aware of Oumous’ situation and will investigate.
“While we want to ensure family members have the opportunity to visit their incarcerated loved ones, DPS must balance that with the need to maintain the safety and security of the facility, staff, inmates and visitors,” Jerry Higgins said in an email.
Manzoor Cheema, a member of Muslims for Social Justice, said incidents such as these are too common in the Triangle and elsewhere. He noted the 2015 shooting of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, reportedly sparked by a parking dispute. The Light House, which stands across the street from the community center, was owned by shooting victim Deah Barakat and has transformed into an incubator for faith-based programs aimed at youth.
Cheema noted that the press conference drew leaders from the Christian, Jewish and workers’ rights communities. “We see Islamophobia as a form of racism,” he said. “We will only be successful if we unite our struggle.”
Muhammad asked that people not make light of the situation because he is alive to speak about it, adding that his airline experience might have escalated. He said he is exploring what legal options to take next.