Muslim Pilgrimage Spurs Screeners' Training

Dec. 29 -- WASHINGTON -- A month after the removal of six imams from a U.S. Airways flight spurred accusations of harassment, the federal government has given airport security trainers cultural awareness training about the Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

This year, an estimated 16,000 American Muslims are making the annual pilgrimage, called the hajj -- including several hundred from Long Island. The grueling, five-day ritual, which began yesterday, is a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

"The cultural awareness training involved reminders about how to screen people with head coverings, policies regarding transport of holy water and the proper respect to show when handling a Quran," said Amy Kudwa, a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman.

Muslim leaders lauded the training of the nation's 45,000 screeners as a positive first step, but said that much more was needed to protect American Muslim travelers from profiling and what they called inappropriate interrogations.

Habeeb Ahmed, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, told of residents, all American citizens, being pulled out of line upon arrival in New York and being interrogated by Customs officials about why they wore head coverings, whether they expected to be more religious, "and other questions that really have nothing to do with security."

After receiving numerous such complaints from returning pilgrims in the past two years, he said he was "very happy" to learn of the training.

Kudwa said that the special training for screeners was a first, and dismissed any connection to the incident last month when a U.S. Airways pilot ordered six imams off a flight after receiving multiple complaints, among them that the men had prayed before boarding the plane.

"The reason we amplified it this year was because of the liquid and gel ban," she said. "We wanted to make sure we were prepared for people wanting to transport holy water."

Many Muslims believe that the water from a well in Mecca is divinely blessed and return to the United States with containers of it.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, said he didn't expect the training to be a cure-all but he likened it to "chicken soup": "It can't hurt to have people better educated about Muslims and Islamic traditions," he said.

CAIR has also opened a hajj profiling hotline and published a pocket guide for travelers called, "Your Rights and Responsibilities as an American Muslim," he said.

Others were more critical.

Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based Muslim American Society, said the issue for many American Muslim travelers is not with airport screeners, whom he called "reasonably accommodating," but vague Customs policies. "What we're more concerned about, is that there seem to be no clear-cut guidelines about why they stop people returning to this country who are American citizens, and when do they stop people who are American citizens."

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