Tanenbaum Urges Religious and Cultural Competency Training for Aeroméxico

Yesterday Sikh American actor Waris Ahluwalia was denied entry onto an Aeroméxico flight from México City for wearing a turban. Aeroméxico personnel requested that he remove the turban – or purchase a ticket on another airline.

Speaking on behalf of the Tanenbaum | Center for Interreligious Understanding, its CEO Joyce Dubensky condemned the conduct of the Aeroméxico personnel. “What happened to Mr. Ahluwalia is a travesty. It is humiliating, disrespectful and unnecessary, even in these days when security is a real issue,” said Dubensky. “Sadly, this is not a unique experience.” Over an 18-month period, the Sikh Coalition found that 105 complaints (53%) filed against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alleged religious discrimination.

Dubensky added, “From Mr. Ahluwalia’s perspective, this was a personal injustice. And for Aeroméxico, it was really bad business. In this climate of heightened security, Aeroméxico does not have to compromise safety for respect. As México’s largest airline, Aeroméxico must train screening personnel on how to respectfully screen passengers wearing religious headwear and clothing.”

One solution that Tanenbaum proposes is having screeners provide privacy for people who wear turbans or other religious coverings so they can be screened, if appropriate, by a same-sex airline employee. “In many instances, people will cooperate with airline personnel in private, as long as they are not being asked to publicly expose themselves and violate their religious beliefs,” Dubensky explained.

Like many Sikhs, Ahluwalia described how his turban and beard represent his commitment to justice and equality. “As fellow travelers, we should all encourage airlines and national security agencies to practice religious and cultural respect, while maintaining real security. Because what happened to Mr. Ahluwalia is inexcusable and it shouldn’t happen to anyone.” Dubensky said.

Tanenbaum offers a range of trainings and resources to help companies leverage religious diversity, create inclusive work environments and meet financial business goals.

The New N-Word

This morning, at a press conference I attended at the offices of the Sikh Coalition, Sandeep Singh looked into a video camera and shared his story of being dragged through the streets of Queens by a pick-up truck. The video doesn’t show his scarring blisters from being burned by the asphalt, nor the 40 stitches that line his chest, but it does illustrate the emotional pain that his face cannot hide.

On July 30, Singh was run down by a man yelling, “Go back to your own country, Bin Laden.” The horror of this attack has been traumatizing for Singh and the Sikh community of New York City. Sadly, it is not an aberration.

This past Monday, Dr. Jaspreet Singh Batra came forward as the victim of another violent hate crime, again against the Sikh community. Batra was walking home with his mother in Roosevelt Island (celebrating her birthday), when a group of younger teens approached yelling, “Osama bin Laden” among other racially charged slurs. As they hurled barbs at his mother, Batra spoke to them about how she should be respected. They responded by beating him in the face and head.

This morning’s press conference was regarding these and other hate attacks. It was profoundly troubling but several things stood out:

  • The Sikh community remains steadfast in its message of peace and forgiveness.
  • The Sikh community continues to emphasize their openness to connecting with non-Sikhs and even the perpetrators in an attempt to educate others about their traditions.

These attacks were not singular events, but only the most recent string of hate-filled violence against one community within our American society. The acts reflect bigotry and hatred against a whole people simply because they have facial hair, wear turbans and practice a different religious tradition.

In his statement to the press, Dr. Batra made a poignant point: “My mother and I were called ‘Osama bin Laden,’” he said. “Is the ‘O’ word the new ‘N’ word?”

Joyce S. Dubensky, CEO