Religious Studies Research Spotlight: Sonya Walker ’20

The senior Religious Studies and Journalism major studied Islamophobia in the US Airline Industry.

Name: Sonya Walker

Majors: Religious Studies and Journalism

Minors: Middle East Studies, Asian Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies

Faculty mentors: Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Ariela Marcus-Sells and Instructor of Journalism Colin Donohue

Title of research project: Islamophobia in the U.S. Airline Industry

Research abstract:

Over the course of seven months I conducted over 25 interviews with Muslims and Sikhs about their experiences in airports, and with pilots and other airline personnel – a population whom previous literature on Islamophobia in the United States has not addressed.

Both the personal perspectives revealed in this presentation and recent news reports surrounding racial profiling of Muslims – and people mistakenly identified as Muslims – illustrate the ongoing impact of Islamophobia in the United States. Moreover, by including testimony by pilots and airline personnel, this research highlights how airports and airplanes serve as a vehicle for Americans, including pilots, travelers, and those who consume media to perpetuate stereotypes and monger fear about Muslims.

My project connects the themes that emerge from these interviews to the academic literature on Orientalism and Islamophobia in the United States (Said 1978). I argue that airports, specifically, are a location in which gendered narratives about the Muslim ‘Other’ not only persist, but are justified under the guise of national security. This project is immediately relevant to the current American moment in that Islamophobia has been increasing since the 2016 election and Islamophobic rhetoric is perpetuated by the president of the United States, notably resulting in the controversial and high-profile travel bans from several Muslim-majority countries put in place by an executive order.

In other words:

The airline industry today is continually troubled with racist rhetoric and racial profiling practices.

What made this topic interesting to you? How did you get started on your research?

Through my personal connections to the airline industry, I realized there was racist rhetoric deployed on a regular basis about people who identify as Muslim, so I wanted to utilize my background in journalism and religious studies to form a project that could address this issue.