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3 Sep, 2007

Sikhs Protest U.S. Airport Profiling

First it was just the metal detectors and body checks, then came removal of shoes, sharp objects and cigarette lighters followed by metal forks and knives as well as nail-clippers. Recently, water, liquids and gels have been placed on the list. Now comes the latest in a long list of insane security checks – permission to pat-down Sikh turbans at American airport checkpoints.

A directive released by the US Transport Security Administration that authorises its 43,000 screeners to give Sikh turbans the same inspection treatment as cowboy hats and berets has triggered strong protests by the Sikh Coalition and other religious faiths.

“The Sikh Coalition continues to be alarmed that these procedures were put in place without community consultation or warning to millions of Sikh air travelers. The Coalition is also concerned that TSA will not provide a copy of the new procedure so that it can be reviewed by the public,” the coalition said in a statement released last week.

Sikh community members who met with US TSA representatives were told that turbans are an example of headwear that could “potentially hide non-metallic threat items.” As no-one was told in advance, the Sikh Coalition took up the issue only after the complaints started pouring in from Sikhs who had been subjected to the pat-down.

Says the statement, “Sikh travelers should therefore expect that turbans will be the subject of secondary screening, regardless of whether a metal detector indicates a metallic object is in the turban.

“The purpose of the secondary screening is to detect non-metallic objects. Therefore from the TSA’s perspective, it is irrelevant whether a Sikh’s turban sets off the metal detector or not. If requested, a private area will be provided for a pat-down search of a turban.”

Although the TSA screener is not required to conduct secondary screening of a turban but “can use his or her discretion to determine whether he/she believes the turban could conceal a non-metallic threat item,” the Sikh Coalition statement said it had four principle concerns, quoted verbatim as follows:

<> “First, the Coalition is concerned that the TSA guidance on how to implement the policy specifically lists the turban as an example of headwear that can be subjected to secondary screening at the discretion of the screener. We believe that the most precious article of our faith has become part of a government-mandated profile of a person who is a terrorist threat.

<> “Second, the Coalition believes that the new procedure and guidance on how to implement them should not be kept secret. It is critical that the procedures be made public so that the millions of air travelers who are subjected to unwanted touching of their religious headdress may comment on them and understand their rights while traveling through America’s airports.

<> “Third the procedures (given the limited information on them released to the public) are disturbingly vague. Screeners have personal discretion to subject a Sikh to additional screening, a turban pat-down, or to remove the turban. With 43,000 TSA screeners nationwide, and minimal cultural competency training, the Sikh Coalition is concerned that this will lead to rampant religious profiling.

<> “Fourth, the Coalition is concerned that the new procedures were created without consulting any Sikhs or Sikh organizations. TSA officials admitted at the meeting that TSA did not consult with Sikhs or inspect a turban before they listed the turban as headwear that could contain an explosive device.”

The statement said that the Sikh coalition and a number of other organisations “will jointly respond to what we believe to be an unacceptable and unexpected policy shift by TSA. It is our hope that TSA will implement a policy that is both respectful of religious pluralism and meets America’s safety needs.

The meeting between the Sikh groups and TSA was organised after the Sikhs wrote directly to Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, a letter headlined “Stop Religious Profiling in US Airports.” The letter made clear why the Sikhs felt strongly about it.

“Touching a Sikh’s turban is a significant affront to his/her religious practice. In its new policy, the TSA equates searching turbans to searching a cowboy hat or a beret. This is unacceptable. A turban is a form of religious garb, not a fashion statement.”

The issue has aroused intense discussion and coverage in the Indian media and on Sikh websites. Petitions have been signed by thousands of people and websites are asking Sikhs to report unpleasant experiences.

In response, the TSA released a statement in which it “expressed understanding about the sensitivity and importance of the Sikh head dress screening.”

“TSA takes their concerns seriously and is interested in reaching a workable solution that does not compromise security,” the statement said. “”TSA will implement additional cultural awareness training for its transportation security officers and will continue dialogue with Sikhs and other groups.”

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