- - Monday, August 17, 2020

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) opened a heavily promoted “Quiet Room” in August 2018. Accessible 365/24/7, it’s an excellent addition to a frenetic travel hub. But it also presents a disquieting problem. 

The 315-square-foot space with two chambers is located after security controls, between the D and E terminals. A PHL press release touts the room as “a place of silence which all passengers may use regardless of their worldview, culture and religious affiliation,” an area suitable for “those who desire a place for solitude or prayer.” What could be wrong with that? 

Well, it’s the same problem that has turned up in schools, hospitals, at airport security, and more broadly: Islam enjoys a favored status. The Quiet Room privileges it in four ways: 

First, the room’s name, announced in five languages, presents a problem: 

• Quiet Room (English)

• Meditation Room (Spanish)

• Quiet Room (Hebrew)

• Prayer Room (Arabic)

• Quiet Thought (Chinese)

For Arabic readers, ghurfat as-salat, turns the room from the airport’s ostensible “place of silence” into a place of religion for the Arabic name implies a place exclusively for Muslim prayer; no Christian prays in a room called ghurfat as-salat. The sign dog-whistles Arabophones about an Islamic prayer space at PHL. 

Second, the room contains many Islamic artifacts, some with official-looking markings (e.g., prayer rugs marked with “PHL Airport”). 

Third, the room contains exclusively built-in Islamic amenities. For starters, the airport announces that “The Quiet Room contains a footbath for those passengers who require cleansing before prayer.” The room’s designers, Roya Taheri and Massoud Mohadjeri of Taheri Architects, explicitly acknowledge that “A Foot Bath is provided mainly for Muslim users to perform ablution prior to prayer.” 

In addition, Taheri Architects notes that “The Foot Bath directs the passenger to a small prayer corner with an inset carpet in the direction of Qibla” (the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face while praying). Additionally, a green arrow on the ceiling points to Mecca. 

Fourth, the room is empty, with benches along the wall but lacking chairs or pews, making it mainly suitable for Muslim prayers. 

In favoring Islam over other religions, the Quiet Room fits a pattern of U.S. airports. Those in Kansas City and Indianapolis have footbaths. The one in Minneapolis-St. Paul devised an elaborate (but aborted) scheme of different colored lights atop taxis to accommodate Muslim drivers unwilling to transport passengers carrying alcohol. 

But this pattern is wrong. Government facilities such as PHL, a wholly-owned unit of the City of Philadelphia, must stick to the principle that American Muslims have the same rights and duties as the citizens (and travelers) of other faiths; they do not have special rights. This means that government agencies may make a space available for religious use (e.g., chapels, footbaths) but they may not use taxpayer monies to pay for or maintain it. 

In this spirit, I asked PHL to make four modifications to render the Quiet Room genuinely ecumenical:

• Change or eliminate the room’s Arabic name.

• Add signage to clarify that religious gifts located in the Quiet Room are strictly private and unofficial. 

• Create religious parity, preferably by eliminating the exclusively Islamic amenities (the footbath, inset carpet and qibla); if not that, then at a minimum by adding non-Islamic amenities (e.g., a Christian cross, Jewish mizrah, Hindu yoga mat, Buddhist prayer bead, etc.).

• Provide chairs in one of the rooms.

After nine months of discussions, airport CEO Rochelle Cameron agreed to #1 (English will be the only language on signs) and #2 (a sign will be added distancing the airport from private gifts). The PHL partly agreed to #3 (the qibla has been removed) and partly refused (“we do not accept the premise that the footbath is a religious symbol endorsing one faith over others” and the inset carpet “contains no obvious religious symbol of any kind”). She rejected #4 (no chairs will be added).

I thank the PHL for this positive response but ask that it complete the necessary changes. Three remaining features contradict the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbidding the government from the “establishment of religion”: the City of Philadelphia must not provide and maintain the footbath and inset carpet, nor keep the Quiet Room devoid of chairs. 

The PHL’s Quiet Room is a small issue but, as this anti-racist moment reminds us, social justice is achieved one small step at a time. 

• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.

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