The paranoid environment created by the 9/11 attacks has allowed for a myriad of civil rights infringements under the guise of national security. Airport security especially ratcheted up racial profiling, marking any Middle Eastern sign or symbol a suspicious target, particularly the turban. Even turbaned individuals with no affiliation with Islam or the Middle East, such as Sikh men, have become “a superficial and accessible proxy for the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks” and a “target of discriminatory conduct,” including employment discrimimation, harrassment, and violence.
But now, this long-permitted prejudice is creating diplomatic tension between the U.S. and India. Today, the Indian press reported on an incident last month in which Houston, Texas airport security officials detained Indian’s UN envoy Hardeep Puri in a holding room for 30 minutes because he was wearing a turban. As a Sikh, Puri is obliged to keep all hair intact and his head covered in public at all times. The turban symbolizes self-respect and piety — “touching of the head dress in public is not allowed” and can only be removed “in the most intimate of circumstances.”
However, as officials present during the incident told Turtle Bay, airport security officials ignored Puri’s religious requirements and long-standing protocol exempting dignitaries from such treatment and demanded to physically check his Turban themselves until Puri informed them that TSA regulations allow him to check himself:
Airport security agents in Austin pulled Singh aside into an enclosed glass holding room for questioning after he refused a request to remove his turban or allow inspectors to touch it, an Indian official who witnessed the incident told Turtle Bay. “He said no, you cannot check my turban,” according to the Indian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I won’t allow you to touch my turban.”
The Indian official said Singh offered to touch the turban himself and to allow the security agents to run a check of his hands for traces of explosives, but he said that one security official refused. Singh insisted that the security official had no right to check his turban, citing TSA regulations for searches of foreign diplomats. “Obviously you don’t know your own rules. Please check your rules,” he told the security agent, according to the Indian official. “The person insisted that he had to do it. He said, ‘Don’t tell me the rules.’”
The Indian official said that the security officials finally checked the security regulations and issued an apology to the Indian ambassador. He said he was unaware of whether his government had filed an official complaint with the United States over the issue.
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