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Illustration by Timothy Chiu

Adventures in Data Science with Corban: No Flying into the US

As the TSA list of individuals who are banned from flights was leaked online, Americans were shocked by a stunning, unheard of bombshell: lots of Americans are Islamaphobic. Written by an American, for Americans (to stop being Islamaphobic).

Mar 6, 2023

This past January, a Swedish hacker who goes by the alias maia leaked the United States Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) no-fly list to the public internet. What is a no-fly list you might be asking? It is the list that determines whether the TSA thinks you are safe to fly. Isn’t that what you always wanted: a white man to judge you and tell you whether you are fit to fly?
As the list sped through the fiber-optic backbones of the internet, Americans from Utah (that’s my state!), to Texas, to Florida began to wonder, is our country racist? It had been a whole three years since the end of the Muslim ban, which itself was an eternity from the last time a judge ordered a school district to desegregate a school four years prior. Racism? Islamophobia? America passed that by a long time ago. To their deep disappointment, the no-fly list tells a slightly different story than many would like to believe.
Two documents were included in the leak. “Selectee.csv” contains a list of individuals who are subject to additional screening where the “nofly.csv” contains a list of individuals who should never ever, in any circumstances ever, be allowed fly (ever). As a step to simplify the analysis, we’ll first combine the lists and do some preprocessing. “Selectee.csv” contains 251,169 individuals, while “nofly.csv” has 1,566,063. Our combined list has a total of 1,817,232 individuals. Then, let’s see what the most common names in this list are.
*Figure One: Most Common Names*
Wow, 16,872 occurrences of Muhammad is a lot of Muhammad. And looking down, there are 9,105 Mohammads, 8,405 Mohameds, and 7,851 Mohammeds. The astute readers among you may be thinking that there seems to be a lot of Arab and Islamic names — a lot more than the white names. The most common male name in the U.S. is James, and the most common female is Mary. Doing a quick search, that gives us a total of 723 occurrences of James and 1132 of Mary. That may seem a little unbalanced.
Since we know the TSA agent who’s reading your name probably cannot pronounce it if it’s not James or Mary, let’s look for all occurrences of “Muhammad,” “Mohamed,” “Mohammad,” “Mohammed,” “Muhammed,” and “Mohamad” together. We’ll also check for it in both first names and last names. That search gives us ​​233,923 occurrences! And if we divide that by our 1,817,232 names, 12.87 percent of individuals on the TSA’s suspicious or banned list will have “Muhammad,” “Mohamed,” “Mohammad,” “Mohammed,” “Muhammed,” or “Mohamad” in their names. Let that sink in: for every 10 people added to the list, there has to be at least one Muhammad or a variation of that.
Since birthdays are included in the leak, let’s see how old some of these people are. We’ll grab the youngest 30 people on the list and have a look at their age:
*Figure Two: Youngest Individuals*
The youngest person on this list is three. And their name? Mohamed. You may be beginning to see a pattern here.
You may be thinking this is not the only case of Islamophobia the US has seen, and you would be right. In 2007, Muhammad Tanvir, a permanent resident of New York from Pakistan, was placed on the US no-fly list by FBI agents who demanded that Muhammad spy on his local Muslim community. It was only after a 2020 US Supreme Court decision that allowed Muslims to sue the US government regarding this issue, that Tanvir, among other Muslims in similar situations, was able to have his name removed. It was not a lawsuit that did this, though. These individuals were quickly and quietly removed from the list by the state before the lawsuit could be filed — allowing the government to evade legal responsibility for the discrimination.
As someone who grew up in a city that was 85 percent white and almost 90 percent Mormon, I had very little exposure to people of other cultures or religions growing up. Before arriving at NYU Abu Dhabi, I had a total of three Muslim friends, and I know my experience was not unique. Homogeneity in race and religion make it easy for Islamophobia and racism to spread, which requires active learning and open minds to counteract. If the status quo means everyone with a name that sounds like Mohammad, including three year olds, are thought to pose a danger, something needs to change.
Corban Villa is Web Chief and Opinion Editor. Email him at
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