Calling for the separation of men and women is an increasingly common tactic of lawful Islamists. Earlier this year, Muslim students succeeded in persuading a popular Harvard gym to set aside female-only hours. Their counterparts on Australian campuses have requested gender-segregated eating and recreational facilities. Municipal swimming pools are often the target of similar demands.
A passenger on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines came face to face with this trend during a trip home from Turkey:
Amsterdam CDA municipal council member Lex van Drooge was recently asked to move to a different seat on a KLM flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam, since the Muslim woman sitting next to him had objections about sitting next to a man.
The council member had been on a work trip to Istanbul together with a group of Amsterdam politicians. He says that at the beginning of the trip back he was asked by a stewardess to move elsewhere in the plane. Later it turned out this request was from his original headscarf-wearing neighbor.
A spokesperson for KLM could not confirm the story, and said there is no specific policy regarding such cultural- or religious-inspired requests. But she says that the crew takes into account special requests of passengers. "If it's possible, then we do that, and if it's not possible, then not."
Businesses and other organizations that serve the public must assemble policies that can effectively deal with such demands, however they might emerge. As is generally the case when evaluating accommodations to Islam, these guidelines should be crafted to carefully balance the rights of a minority versus those of the majority.
In and of itself, changing seats requires minimal inconvenience. People sometimes do so voluntarily to allow fellow passengers to sit with family or friends. However, asking that someone move based on religious objections is beyond the pale, and doubly so when onboard representatives of the company act as intermediaries in the request.
Airlines should view the KLM case as a warning: deal with these issues in their early stages, before pressure groups begin to call for more extensive onboard segregation. In the process they might even discover that most of their customers would prefer not to fly the Shari'a-friendly skies.