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Turban checks: US lawmaker raps govt agency
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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September 13, 2007 08:45 IST

In a blistering missive to the head of the Transportation Security Administration for its change of screening procedures to include searches of turbans, California Democrat Tom Lantos, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is the founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, warned against religious profiling and insensitivity.

In his letter to TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, the 14-term lawmaker expressed his deep concern that the new policy encouraging TSA screeners to pull aside and search airline passengers wearing religious head coverings has led to much harassment and humiliation of turbaned Sikh Americans at airports.

While informing Hawley that 'I have the greatest respect for your mission to secure our nation's transportation systems,' Lantos however, argued that 'unfortunately, it seems that this policy change, has prompted TSA employees to engage in rampant religious discrimination and profiling.'

'I hope you agree that such practices are not only illegal and inconsistent with American values, but also ultimately detrimental to national security,' he said.

Lantos contacted Hawley after being alerted to several incidents involving the civil liberties of Sikh American travelers at San Francisco International Airport, which is in his Congressional district.

These travelers reported that TSA employees incorrectly informed them that secondary screening was mandatory for any passenger wearing a turban, and Sikh Americans were ordered to remove their turbans -- which represent a fundamental article of their faith -- in full public view.

Since the new policy was instituted August 4, more than 50 such incidents have been reported across the country.

'I am very skeptical that a policy targeting particular head coverings, such as turbans, can be effective, and I am alarmed about the way this policy has been abused and inappropriately implemented by Transportation Security Officers,' Lantos informed Hawley.

'Of particular concern is the fact that out of the more than 50 reported incidents that have occurred since the institution of this new policy, the most egregious abuses of civil liberties as a direct result of this new policy appear to have occurred at San Francisco International Airport, which is in my congressional district.'

In his letter, Lantos cited examples of Sikh Americans being harassed and humiliated in 'broad public view' and said that violating this group's religion faith by making these people remove their turbans and patting down their hair, were 'outrageous.'

'It is apparent to me that these incidents demonstrate how the inconsistent application of this flawed policy has led to religious profiling and discrimination and the humiliation of ordinary Americans," he said.

'Furthermore, such practices feed public stereotypes that erroneously equate members of the Sikh American community with terrorism. Provoking a sense of fear against innocent American citizens simply because they wear turbans is a dangerous precedent that our government should take extensive care to avoid,' he added.

'The lack of religious sensitivity and inconsistency in implementing this revised policy is astounding and disturbing,' Lantos complained, adding that he could understand how 'an agency that took pride in working with religious and community groups after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 be so cavalier and discriminatory in its policy that affects those same groups just six years later.'

'The consequence is an abuse of power and the deliberate degradation of everyday Americans,' he said, asking Hawley for a formal reply, including information about action that will be taken to inform TSA employees about accurate implementation of security policies and the possibility of trainings to prevent religious discrimination.

Lantos pointed out: 'As a victim of religious persecution myself, I abhor the idea that a US government agency is engaged in a practice that isolates and humiliates ordinary Sikh Americans solely because they choose to wear the turban as an article of their faith.'

He held out the hope that the TSA will 'act quickly to enact changes, which will ensure no future discriminatory practices are imposed on travelers.'

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