Claiming that serving alcohol to passengers on commercial flights violates her Islamic beliefs, Charee Stanley, an ExpressAir flight attendant and newly converted Muslim, has filed a discrimination complaint at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
As an observing pluralist Muslim who has made her home in both the secular West and the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I am troubled by the bald attempt, distastefully disguised as an attempt to preserve religious freedom, to seek the privileging of cultural dominance, a uniquely Islamist, not Islamic, position.
The flight attendant's interpretation of her Islamic beliefs demands that the secular workplace in which she finds herself accommodate to her literal (and inaccurate) interpretation of her newly declared faith. This goes beyond the bounds of "religious freedom." Increasingly, such encroachment on the public space characterizes our experience not of Islam but of Islamism in the non-Muslim world. A recent example is the surprising decision by Orlando International Airport to provide a separate contemplation area when the airport already provided space dedicated to prayer and worship by adherents of all faiths.
Islamist cultural dominance and privileging above other cultures, including secular culture, is a troubling phenomenon. Refusal, including legal refusal, to accede to it generates false accusations of Islamophobia, which intimidate employers or non-Muslim coworkers and even pluralist Muslim employees and employers. Worse, accusations of Islamophobia reinforce the resolve of Islamists to peddle an "Islam under siege narrative," which is integral to the Islamist worldview and inspires much of Islamism's violent and non-violent war on secularism.
Islam is certainly clear on its proscription of alcohol — that is, the consumption of alcohol. This religious rule can be restricting, particularly when Islam is not properly understood, as so often it is not, not only in the non-Muslim world (in this case, the employer) but most frequently by Muslims themselves (the flight attendant).
In forbidding the use of certain substances, Islam is far from unique among belief systems. An entire body of work exists examining the role and influence of ritual cleanliness and purity in religion. Denoting matter as pure or impure, clean or unclean, permitted or forbidden, occurs across societies and has been noted by anthropologists. It has served as a method for ordering and rationalizing society for millennia.
Muslims agree that Islam clearly designates alcohol as haram, or forbidden, because alcohol, first developed in pre-Islamic Arabia, leads to khamr, or intoxication, about which Muslims are explicitly warned in chapter 2 of the Koran. Consequently, consumption of alcohol for all Muslims is considered taboo and "sinful." Other causes of khamr include not only alcohol but gambling, recreational drugs, or any other mind-altering substance or activity.
Most Muslims agree that the drinking of alcohol is forbidden. ExpressAir does not require the flight attendant to consume alcohol as part of her job description, merely to serve it. Many Muslims find that unpalatable, or even frowned upon, given some hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, but porcine flesh, the blood of animals, and substances altering mentation are considered explicitly haram with respect only to their consumption.
For the Muslim, forbidden substances, even alcohol, are sometimes permitted, or halal. Alcohol as a medicinal agent is clearly permitted within Islam, because the substance in that case is not used as an agent of khamr. Similarly, cocaine is permitted as a local anesthetic but not as a recreational drug. This enables the Muslim to embrace new applications of substances otherwise clearly deemed haram.
If the EOEC finds in the flight attendant's favor, it will set a difficult precedent both for other employers who may hesitate to hire Muslims and for Muslims already working in environments where alcohol is present, whether their work entails stocking shelves at a supermarket with alcoholic drinks, arranging perfumes (which contain high-proof alcohol) on a makeup counter, or the mixing of medications in a pharmacy. Each job-related activity could be considered a violation of a Muslim's religious freedom by the same reasoning that the flight attendant is following in her complaint against ExpressAir.
"Alcohol is forbidden, and so I must not even handle it, and an employer compelling me to do so is thereby denying me religious freedom": Such rigid, literalist interpretations of Islam imperil the public space for all of us, both in secular democracies and in Islamic societies.
As a Muslim doctor, I have for decades treated and touched patients acutely intoxicated with alcohol, prescribed drugs containing alcohol, and even in critical-care settings ordered pure intravenous alcohol infusions when necessary. Dozens of times a day I use alcohol for hand hygiene. It is crucial to my work and my own health. None of this violates Islam. Quite the opposite: These substances containing alcohol allow me to be my best Muslim self, serving society as a doctor, helping to heal and to relieve suffering.
Controversies did arise over the use of alcohol in health care. When it was found that alcohol handrub enhanced hand hygiene, some Muslims objected. Some Muslim physicians — ironically, in the West, not the East — refused to use the alcohol hand solutions, arguing that alcohol was haram. Even highly skilled Muslim physicians needed to be educated about Islam and alcohol, an education in which I participated as the lead author of a definitive article (2006) in The Lancet. Together with colleagues (including other Muslim academicians) at the World Health Organization, we documented how the medical community could resolve the dilemma through education.
In Saudi Arabia, I worked with Muslim doctors, some of whom were highly orthodox, and with equally orthodox Saudi Muslim patients who never refused the use of alcohol or other substances that some think Muslims might be prohibited from handling. Like many Muslim academics practicing medicine in the Middle East, I was astonished that, in contrast, Western trained-Muslims objected. Like the newly converted Muslim American flight attendant, these Muslim physicians objected to what they considered personal defilement caused by handling a forbidden substance.
The flight attendant, whether she arrived at her position independently or was coached to it by an advocacy group, plays into the entitlement narrative that Islamists like to peddle, chilling rational discourse in the current climate of tensions surrounding Islam in our Western secular public spaces.
By standing firm in the face of such demands, ExpressAir certainly risks being labeled "Islamophobic," which, as the aggressive advocacy group CAIR (the Council on American–Islamic Relations) has probably calculated, would serve its objective and that of the flight attendant: intimidation. The result of all this is likely to be an increase of xenophobia against Muslims in America, particularly those who observe ritual dress, while encouraging some Muslims to increase both their resentment of our shared, secular public space and their commitment to Islamist cultural dominance.
— Qanta Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, an account of her experiences as a physician in Saudi Arabia. She is the 2014 Ford Foundation public-voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Recently, she joined the Shoah Foundation's 2015 Mission to Poland for the Past Is Present, a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.