An Emirati man was detained in Avon, Ohio, last week after a female clerk at a local hotel called 911 to report what, according to her, looked like a man affiliated to Islamic State.
What followed was a prompt response from the local police, who charged toward the man with guns drawn and handcuffed him.
It later turned out that the “ISIS suspect” was just a businessman from the UAE named Ahmed Al Menhali who was looking for a room at Fairfield Inn and Suites when the clerk spotted him in the lobby. He had entered the country on a tourist visa for medical reasons and had been living in Lakewood on rent since April.
After the police realized Al Mehnali wasn’t a real threat, he was allowed to stand up. However, reeling from the shock of being handcuffed by gun-wielding cops, Al Mehnali collapsed on the pavement outside the hotel.
The incident, understandably, set off a scorching round of condemnation and criticism across the United Arab Emirates. Emiratis protested against Menhali’s treatment at the hands of the police, using the Arabic hashtag #AttackingAnEmiratiGuyInUS.
City officials subsequently apologized to Al Mehnali. Separately, Julia Shearson, executive director of CAIR Cleveland, expressed her regret over Al Mehnali’s ordeal, saying a lack of cultural understanding, led to his arrest.
“I believe the clerk had little cultural training to where she called her family to make it something outrageous," Shearson told CNN. "The only behavior that was unusual was the clerk's, not Ahmed. It's the lack of cultural education."
Now, here’s what the problem is: While the police’s response to the clerk’s speculation was indeed inappropriate and condemnable, so was the claim made by the clerk.
And to say it was a result of mere cultural ignorance doesn’t cut it.
The clerk saw a man, dressed in traditional Arab attire, talking on the phone in Arabic. How come this description led her to believe he was pledging allegiance to ISIS?
Perhaps the answer lies in several similar incidents that have occurred before, but at a different place.
A more recent example happened in April when Southwest Airlines infamously kicked a Berkeley student off a flight after a passenger overheard him speaking Arabic. The incident sparked international outrage over discriminatory attitudes of passengers as well as airline crew, who just assumed a person could be a terror suspect based on their clothes or language.
And it wasn’t the first — or the last — such incident. Many more have been religiously profiled in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West.
In an age where instantaneous information about the world is at an individual’s disposal 24/7, “cultural ignorance” no longer should be used as an excuse for racial and religious discrimination against people.