Last December, Gil Parker Payne spotted a Muslim woman wearing a hijab on a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Payne, who was seated several rows behind the woman, walked up the aisle towards her while the plane was still in flight, stopped next to her seat, and said, “Take it off! This is America!” When she didn’t follow his orders, he proceeded to pull her hijab all the way off, leaving the woman’s head exposed.
On Friday, the 37-year-old man from Gastonia, North Carolina, plead guilty in the District of New Mexico one count of “using force or threat of force to intentionally obstruct a Muslim woman … in the free exercise of her religious beliefs.”
There has been a spike of Islamophobia recently, particularly in the wake of the ISIS attacks in Paris last November and in Brussels this spring. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has even called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, although he now says that is just a “suggestion.”
Traveling is a particular source of anxiety for Muslims, because there is so much racial profiling from TSA agents, airline employees, and, in the case of Payne, fellow passengers. Last month, a man was removed from a Southwest airplane for speaking Arabic. Last week, an Ivy League economist was interrogated and racially profiled for doing math on an American Airlines flight.
A sentence hearing has not been set for Payne yet.
“No matter one’s faith, all Americans are entitled to peacefully exercise their religious beliefs free from discrimination and violence,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Using or threatening force against individuals because of their religion is an affront to the fundamental values of this nation, and the Civil Rights Division will continue to be vigilant in protecting the religious liberties guaranteed to all Americans.”
“This prosecution sends a clear message to anyone who contemplates the use of threats or intimidation to interfere with the right of individuals, including members of our Muslim community, to express their faith without fear,” said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez of the District of New Mexico. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the religious rights of Muslims in New Mexico by aggressively prosecuting those who wish to perpetrate hate crimes against them.”