BKK Airport Apologizes for Searching Muslim Cleric's Headwear

A controversial photo of Suvarnabhumi airport staff searching the Sheikh-ul Islam of Thailand's turban, 28 May 2015.

BANGKOK — Thailand's airport director has formally apologized for subjecting the spiritual leader of Thai Muslims to a security search that involved inspecting his turban with a metal detector.

In a photo taken by a bystander on 28 May, staff at Suvarnabhumi Airport can be seen using metal detector to scan the taqiyah worn by Aziz Phitakkumpon, the Sheikh-ul Islam of Thailand. Aziz was sitting on a wheelchair at the time. 

The photo quickly went viral on social media, with several Muslim news agencies picking up the story and alleging that the airport staff used their hands to search Aziz's religious cap. Many commentators viewed the search as excessive and offensive.

Nitinai Sirismatthakarn, president of Thailand’s airport agency, met with Aziz at his office in Bangkok yesterday to deliver an apology in person. 

Speaking to Nitinai and reporters, Aziz said he was not angry and understood that the staff had to perform their duty. He explained that the photo was taken by an anonymous bystander, and that the Sheikh-ul Islam Office was not involved with the buzz on social media in any way. 

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Nitinai Sirismatthakarn (L), the president of Thailand’s airport agency, apologizing to Aziz Phitakkumpon, the Sheikh-ul Islam of Thailand, 4 June 2015.

However, Prasan Sricharoen, an assistant to Aziz, told reporters that he personally felt offended by the incident, and added that Suvarnabhumi Airport security staff have searched Aziz's taqiyah at least four times in May alone.

"But the Chularatchamontri has always used Islamic teachings and forgiven them," Prasan said, using the Thai term for the Sheikh-ul Islam.

There are approximately four million Muslims in Thailand, making up six percent of the population in the mostly-Buddhist country. Many Muslims live in the south, especially the three southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, where a separatists have been fighting for the past decade to secede the region and form a breakaway Islamic state. 

"After the incident, many Muslim brothers and sisters from the three southern border provinces and imams from Middle Eastern countries phoned us to ask what happened out of concern," Prasan said. "But because we do not want the situation to escalate into protests, we explained to them that it was a misunderstanding. The Muslim brothers and sisters understood it, too." 

In response, Nitinai said the incident will be a lesson for staff and officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

"Operating officials may not understand everything [about religion]," Nitinai said. "The Airport will gladly improve our workings in details about religion." 

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