Last updated: 12:21 PM ET, Sun May 31 2015

Report: Muslim Chaplain Faced Discrimination on United Flight

Impacting Travel | Michael Isenbek | May 31, 2015

Report: Muslim Chaplain Faced Discrimination on United Flight

On a United Airlines flight Friday, Tahera Ahmad asked for an unopened can of Diet Coke from a flight attendant, but claims to have received a dose of discrimination instead, CNN reported.

Ahmad, 31, a Muslim chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, was flying from Chicago to Washington for a conference encouraging dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth. She was wearing the traditional headscarf, or hijab.

For sanitary reasons, she requested an unopened can of soda. The flight attendant said she could not give her one, but then gave an unopened can of beer to another passenger. Ahmad questioned the flight attendant after seeing this.

"We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane," she said the flight attendant told her.

When Ahmad asserted that she was being subject to discrimination, the attendant abruptly opened the beer can.

"It's so you don't use it as a weapon," was the reply, Ahmad said.

In shock, Ahmad queried other flyers if they had seen what happened.

A man across the aisle yelled, "You Muslim, you need to shut the f--- up," she said.

"What?" she asked.

The man leaned over, looked her in the eyes and said: "Yes, you know you would use it as a weapon. So shut the f--- up," according to Ahmad.

"I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes," she wrote on Facebook while still in the air. "I can't help but cry ... because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay."

In light of her Facebook post, social media support poured in, and the #unitedfortahera hashtag popped up. Some supporters said they intend to boycott United.

Suhaib Webb, a well-known Muslim American imam, tweeted, "I'm asking all of you to let @united know that you are disgusted with this bigotry." He also tweeted a photo of a can of Diet Coke over #unitedfortahera.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said in a statement, the airline "strongly supports diversity and inclusion ... We and our partners do not discriminate against our employees or customers," he said. "We are reaching out directly to Ms. Ahmad to get a better understanding of what occurred during the flight."

"We are also discussing the matter that Ms. Ahmad describes with Shuttle America, our regional partner that operated the flight. We look forward to speaking with Ms. Ahmad and hope to have the opportunity to welcome her back."

Ahmad, a United frequent flyer, told CNN, this isn’t merely about a bad flight experience. "I'm not doing this to go after United Airlines, she said. “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 said, beginning to weep.

"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."

The flight attendant as well as the pilot later apologized, she said.

"She said she's working on her rude behavior and that the man (sitting across the aisle) should not have said anything," Ahmad said.

Ahmad was recognized by the White House "as a leading Muslim female in the United States" during Women's History Month, according to Northwestern University. Before that, she had attended a Ramadan dinner hosted by President Barack Obama.

The incident aboard the United flight wasn’t her first encounter with discrimination. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she’s had her hijab pulled off, and been spat upon.

"This time I was being treated as a threat to everyone around me 30,000 feet above the ground and being told that I could use a can of Diet Coke as a weapon," she told CNN. "And no one said anything."

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