US airport turban searches anger Sikhs

2010-11-09 13:05

Washington - Sikh Americans are protesting at what they say is a new policy at US airports to screen their turbans systematically, voicing fear the move would further stigmatise their faith.

US officials have not confirmed a change in policy and insisted they respected religious beliefs. But they said security measures necessitated checks on "bulky" clothing such as turbans, which Sikh men are required by faith to wear.

A group of Sikh American groups said they met several weeks ago with representatives of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who told them that airports would now screen turbans with hand-wands at all times.

Current policy is erratic, with New York City airports rarely conducting secondary searches on Sikhs but airports in other cities such as Chicago and San Francisco doing so routinely, said Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition advocacy group.

"The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100% of the time," Singh said on Monday.

The community suffered a wave of hate crimes in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks by assailants who mistakenly associated Sikh men - who are also required to wear beards - with Osama bin Laden and radical Islam.


"To have the government at an airport pulling the turban aside specifically and screening the turban only reinforces that view that many people already have," Singh said.

"If they're going to stigmatise our children and stigmatise our community and specifically stigmatise our article of faith, they better have a damn good reason," he said.

Singh accused the TSA of having an "obsession" with the turban, saying that December's "underwear bomber" case involving a young Nigerian showed that any item of clothing could carry explosives.

The TSA said that hand-wand checks were necessary on bulky clothing, even with the growing installation of so-called Advanced Imaging Technology, which looks underneath one's clothing.

"With the addition of Advanced Imaging Technology, TSA continues to screen bulky items to ensure they do not contain a threat, which includes the use of a hand-held metal detector," a statement said.

"Removal of all headwear is recommended but the rules accommodate those with religious, medical or other reasons for which the passenger wishes not to remove the item," it said.

Progress in another area

The TSA said its policy has been in place since 2007, an assertion that Singh called "complete nonsense".

"The TSA is consistently inconsistent both with what they tell the Sikh community and what they tell the public and media," said Singh, who hopes to enlist members of Congress to support Sikh Americans on the issue.

The row comes as Sikh Americans appear to make progress in another area, with the US military allowing several to serve while wearing turbans. Officially, the Pentagon said it reviews each case individually.

President Barack Obama recently raised controversy by calling off plans to visit Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, during his visit to India.

Some people involved in the trip suspected that Obama was worried about the image of him wearing a turban, which could offer more ammunition to some of his domestic critics who falsely say that he is Muslim.

The White House said that skipping the temple was solely a logistical issue. Obama won a warm reception in India when he supported its membership on the UN Security Council, a longtime goal for the world's largest democracy.