Muslim religious group: Airport body scanners violate Islamic law

Published 16 February 2010

A leading Muslim organization in the United States issues a ruling saying that whole-body scanners violates Islamic laws on modesty; the organizations urges all Muslims to choose pat-downs instead; TSA says that the pat-down option is available to all passengers

Saying that body scanners violate Islamic law, Muslim-American groups are supporting a fatwa — a religious ruling — that forbids Muslims from going through the scanners at airports. The Fiqh Council of North America — a body of Islamic scholars that includes some from Michigan — issued a fatwa last week that says going through the airport scanners would violate Islamic rules on modesty. “It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women,” reads the fatwa issued last Tuesday. “Islam highly emphasizes haya (modesty) and considers it part of faith. The Quran has commanded the believers, both men and women, to cover their private parts.”

Free Press’s Niraj Warikoo writes that the decision could complicate efforts to intensify screening of potential terrorists who are Muslim. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt in Detroit by a Muslim suspect from Nigeria, some have called for the use of body scanners at airports to find explosives and other dangerous materials carried by terrorists. Some airports are now in the process of buying and using the body scanners, which show in graphic detail the outlines of a person’s body.

Muslim groups say, however, that the scanners go against their religion. One option offered to passengers who do not want to use the scanners would be a pat down by a security guard. The Muslim groups are urging members to undergo those instead.

Two members of the Fiqh Council are from Michigan, Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, and Imam Ali Suleiman Ali of the Canton Mosque. “Fiqh” means Islamic jurisprudence.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has a chapter in Michigan, says it endorses the fatwa. “We support the Fiqh Council’s statement on full-body scanners and believe that the religious and privacy rights of passengers can be respected while maintaining safety and security,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR.

Currently, there are 40 full-body scanners at 19 airports in the U.S., including two of them in Detroit, said spokesman Jim Fotenos of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). There are plans for 450 more body scanners in U.S. airports, he said.

In a statement, the TSA said it is committed to keeping passengers safe and also protecting their privacy. “TSA’s mission is to keep the traveling public safe. Advanced imaging technologies are an important tool in a multi-layered security system to detect evolving threats such as improvised explosive devices. TSA’s use of these technologies includes strong protections in place to safeguard passenger privacy. Screening images are automatically deleted, and the officer viewing the image will never see the passenger.”

The TSA stressed that the body scanners are “optional to all passengers.” Those who turn them down, “will receive equivalent screening that may include a physical pat-down, hand-wanding, and other technologies. Physical pat-downs are performed by Transportation Security Officers of the same sex as the passenger in a private screening area, if the passenger requests.”

Body scanners “do not produce photos,” the agency said. Rather, the images “look like chalk outlines.”

The Fiqh Council is based in Plainfield, Indiana, where it is affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and advises Muslims on sharia, or Islamic law. An earlier version of the group started in the 1960s with the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada. The chairman of the Fiqh Council is Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in California and former president of ISNA.

In its fatwa, the council said the use of body scanners “is against the teachings of Islam, natural law.”