If you keep up on news in the Muslim-American community the you probably now about the Rye Playland incident from the end of August during Eid al-Fitr. If not it was basically a situation that got way out of hand between police ans Muslim amusement park goers over the issue of head coverings. It ended up with several arrests and both sides pointing fingers. It was a hot news item for aproximately 5-days and then completely fizzled out. I even started a post on it and never finished it. I don’t really have the time to go back and clean it up for publication … so here is my original draft on the topic from Sept. 3rd. Sorry for any typos or dead links – this is my draft copy.
***Original draft post from September3rd begins here ***
For those of you who regularly follow this blog, you know I have been writing on my outsider’s perspective of the observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The month is now over and Muslims here are celebrating Eid al-Fitr one of most important religious holidays on the Islamic calender. The same was true of around 3,000 Muslims at Rye Playland in suburban Westchester County just outside of New York City on Tuesday. This outing was organized by the Muslim American Society of New York and unfortunately what started as a family-oriented outing ended with allegations of religious discrimination, willful inciting of riots, police brutality and 15 arrests.
I have one more entry in my Ramadan series, but had to take a moment to address this sad news from America. Actually, I have struggled all day with what to write. As an American who has been living as a guest in Muslim nation for the past few years I read the news reports and blog entries on the incident with a heavy heart. From my perspective the incident was completely avoidable and indicative of the cross-cultural shortsightedness plaguing America today.
If you are not familiar with the details of the incident, the following links might be helpful:
My Summary of What Happened
Accounts vary on what actually took place and I am not a reliable reporter as I am a few thousand miles and a few days removed from what occurred. However, after reading a bunch of articles on the matter this is what I’ve pieced together. The special event was organized in advance between the Muslims American Society (MAS) of NY and Rye Playland. News outlets have obtained e-mails exchanged between the two organizations that included information given on Playland’s safety policy re. “head gear” on certain rides. For safety reasons the park bans all “head gear” on certain rides. The MAS representative indicated that “there is going to be a lot of commotion about this” but the park administration indicated that they were firm on the policy and that it could not be changed.
It appears that the overwhelming majority of Muslim attendees were informed about the policy and had no trouble. However, a few seem to have been uninformed. One 17-year old Muslim woman appears to have been one of those who didn’t know about the policy and took umbrage at the fact that she was being denied access to a particular ride after refusing to remove her hijab, or head scarf. She argued with the ride attendant and then complained whop management who would not change the policy. This young lady then reports that she told other Muslim women in attendance who also were surprised by the restriction. An argument between Muslim attendees then ensued. Some said that the women should just take off their scarves. Others declared that this amounted to religious discrimination.
Security personnel apparently stepped in to break up this argument between the Muslim attendees and that’s when things began to escalate. Eyewitness reports vary but all seem to indicate that police who responded to the scene eventually forcibly grabbed a woman, pushed her to the ground and handcuffed her. Others who saw this tried to intervene on her behalf and a large scuffle broke out including multiple police and around 30-40 Muslims. Police were apparently caught on video using batons to subdue belligerents. One young man visibly bruised from the encounter reported to the news media that he was being hit by police even though he was not resisting arrest. Others stated that in the chaos police were grabbing bystanders observing the scuffle and arresting them in the confusion.
100 officers and 60 units from 9 different departments responded to the scene. The I-95 exit to the park was closed and the park itself was shut down for 2 hours in the aftermath of the incident. Police officials state that only necessary force was used to keep the situation from getting more out-of-hand, but Muslim attendees claim that it was this use of force that escalated the situation in the first place.
My Thoughts and Observations
As an outsider in a predominately Muslim society I experience Islamic culture in a way that most Americans do not. I count many Muslims among my friends and have had almost 100% positive interactions while here. It is through this lens that I view Muslims in general and this impacts the way I filter news about Muslims. Below are some of my reactions to this sad incident.
The number of people involved
I’ve been caught up in two riots in and have observed a handful of mass demonstrations in my day. These can be scary situations and the psychological dynamics of crowds are dicey at best. To say that rational decision making goes out the window quickly is an understatement. With reports of fights breaking out at a public facility in suburban New York with 3,000 Muslims in attendance I am sure that law enforcement personnel reporting to the scene were envisioning worst-case scenarios. That said, it must be stated that only 30-40 park patrons were eventually involved in the altercation. That is only around 1% of the Muslims in attendance and only 1/2% of all of those at the park that day. This number seems important to me. 99% of the Muslims were not involved and apparently peacefully complied with park regulations and the orders of law enforcement personnel.
How it all started
An interview of the 17-year old woman who “started the whole thing” can be found here. She was apparently told by the ride attendant to remove her “head gear” and she responded, ““This has nothing to do with headgear,this is my religion.” From my perspective this is where it all could have been avoided. This interchange is indicative of cultural misunderstanding and short-sightedness on both sides. The park attendant was simply quoting park policy:
Hats must be secured, and jackets/sweaters must be worn properly and not around the waist while on a ride. Some rides do not allow backpacks, purses or head gear of any kind.
The park doesn’t “ban head scarfs” in particular as some sensational headlines make it seem, but rather bans all head gear on some rides. The use of the term “head gear” seems to be an intentional catch all phrase to cover any and all items that might be worn on a persons head. However, to a person of faith who wears a head scarf for religious and cultural purposes I can see how the term could come across as flippant, insensitive, or even disrespectful. Head gear sound like something you wear at a hockey match or use to straighten your teeth.
*** end of original draft post ***
Now here are my final questions and comments to all parties involved:
1. To event organizers: knowing that this was going to be a hot-button issue with some of your constituents did you really do everything in your power to let people know about Playland’s policy? Really?
2. To the 17-year old girl who got so upset: I respect your wishes to cover your head as part of your religious and cultural practice. However, I seriously question your need to get upset about being denied access to an amusement park ride because of a safety rule in place for your own protection (as well as the safety of others). The park is duty bound to protect its guests – if they are prohibiting all forms of head coverings on certain rides you cannot claim religious discrimination. Besides, sometimes God calls us to do certain things according to a different moral standard and this causes us to act differently than non-religious people. It seems to me that God calling you to wear a head covering is more important than being free to ride a roller coaster. In other words to be obedient to God’s commands sometimes we have to limit our own freedoms.
3. To Rye Playland Management and Staff: Do you uniformly enforce your no head gear policy? The young girl seems to indicate that you do not. If that is the case then you do open yourself up to charges of religious discrimination. Also knowing that this was going to be a hot-button issue did you do everything in your power to train your staff to handle the issue with sensitivity? Do employees need to call religious coverings “head gear?” Did you do everything you could to inform riders even before they bought tickets of you policies? By all accounts the Muslim group was 1/2 your ticket sales that day. I would say going the extra mile to ensure that size group is educated and satisfied is just common sense and good business. If it were me I would have made sure every person saw the policy at or before the ticket counter.
4. To security and law enforcement: it seems there are ways to de-escalate tense situations without throwing people on the ground, using batons, and handcuffing people. Given the small percentage of overall park goers actually involved in the incident it seems your response may have been disproportionate. Not to mention it was their holiday. Do you get that to them this would be like a Jewish cop throwing a Catholic girl on the ground and handcuffing her on Christmas? Perhaps more restraint was called for … but not of that kind.
5. To all the conservative bloggers and fear mongers out there trying to turn this incident into something menacing: knock it off. At the core of this story is a 17-year old girl who (IMO) is a little bit immature and decided to take the wrong stand for her religion. She has confused something that is a necessary inconvenience (giving up a roller coaster ride for the sake of her religious values) with religious discrimination. In the end, she’s just a teenager responding to things as teenagers do. Stop trying to find some hidden Muslim agenda against America in every incident relating to Muslims.
I think this completely avoidable incident is indicative of the climate of fear and misunderstanding that still obscures the way most Americans view their Muslim American neighbors. A sad day indeed.