Turban-wearing Sikh actor barred from boarding plane refuses to fly home

By Peter Holley

Waris Ahluwalia, the well-known designer and actor, says his turban and beard represent his commitment to equality and justice. Photo / AP
Waris Ahluwalia, the well-known designer and actor, says his turban and beard represent his commitment to equality and justice. Photo / AP

Waris Ahluwalia stopped resisting rigorous airport security checks a long time ago.

The well-known Sikh American designer and actor, known for his roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Darjeeling Limited, says he's grown accustomed to multiple bag searches, invasive pat-downs and incessant swabbing.

He'll even let you massage his feet for foreign objects without protest.

After passing through two comprehensive screenings before his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York City on Monday morning, he thought he was ready to board his plane. But security personnel thought otherwise.

"The security person said, 'Now, will you take off your turban?'" Ahluwalia said. He was unsure whether the man was employed by the airport, the airline, or both. "I said, 'I won't be taking off my turban here.'

"A group of Aeromexico employees spoke among themselves in Spanish and then one guy came back to me wearing an orange vest over a suit and said, 'You will not be flying Aeromexico and you will need to book a flight on another airline'."

Instead of getting angry, the 41-year-old - who several years ago become the first-ever Sikh American model in a national Gap ad campaign - turned to social media, where he used his predicament to raise awareness about discriminatory airport screenings.

On Instagram, he wrote: "I was told I could not board my @aeromexico flight to NYC because of my turban."

A photo showed a sombre-faced Ahluwalia standing in front of the airline's customer service desk in Mexico City.

On Instagram he wrote: "Dear NYC fashion week. I may be a little late as @aeromexico won't let me fly with a turban. Don't start the show without me. #lovenotfear #fearisanopportunitytoeducate

"My turban and beard represent my commitment to equality and justice," Ahluwalia said in a statement distributed by the Sikh Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group that works on behalf of followers of the monotheistic faith, which originated in South Asia in the 15th century. "If security personnel would like to respond with bigotry and fear then I will take another flight that's more inclusive."

In the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition, security agents are allowed to pat down or swab a passenger's turban with permission. Failing that, they can ask a passenger to step into a private area for a secondary screening.

Ahluwalia said airports all over the world follow similar rules, but he suspects that employees working at Aeromexico's gate hadn't been trained to screen Sikh passengers.

Phone calls and emails requesting comment from Aeromexico were not immediately returned.

Hours after he was barred from boarding the plane, Ahluwalia remains inside the Mexico City airport. After his story made headlines in the United States, Aeromexico offered him another ticket and told him he wouldn't have to remove his turban.

But he's now refusing to fly another, "more inclusive" airline, too.

"At this point," he said, "I realise that this isn't about my convenience or getting home for lunch today. I realise that if I walk away, somebody else is going to go through this experience again."

He added: "It doesn't feel like a choice I can make. I don't think I can just get on that plane."

He's refusing to leave, until the three demands - noted in a Sikh Coalition tweet - are met: a public apology from Aeromexico; Sikh awareness training for airport security and training on how to screen passengers with religious headwear.

Ahluwalia, who is Indian American, has been featured in multiple best-dressed lists. He has also had roles in several Wes Anderson films alongside Hollywood stars such as Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.

Even so, this is not the artist's first brush with intolerance. In 2013, a Gap subway advertisement using his photo was defaced with anti-Muslim graffiti in New York, according to the Huffington Post.

The caption on the ad was changed from "Make Love" to "Make Bombs", Huffington Post reported. The defacer also wrote "Please stop driving TAXIS" on the image.

In recent months, Sikh advocates say, there has been a growing number of violent and discriminatory incidents targeting members of the religious group.

"For Sikh Americans, the unique markers of religious identity - the turban, the beard - these markers are associated with the markers of terrorism," Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, said in September.

In other words: "People see a Sikh and construe them as the enemy."

Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition's legal director, said in December that the backlash against people who are perceived as being non-American has been exacerbated by anti-Islamic statements made by Republican presidential candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Carson has said that the United States should not elect a Muslim president, citing concerns about "different loyalties". Trump has called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States.

"Trump's statements legitimise nativist impulses," Kaur said. "It's why we're seeing more profiling and vandalism and intimidating incidents. We've been speaking to the family of an elderly man who was hit in the head with an apple a few days ago. These are the kind of things that you start to see as the political rhetoric escalates."

- Washington Post

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