It took the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles four years, but they finally revoked an Iraq veteran's specialty license plate, which read "ICUHAJI." Haji is an often derogatory term used by some American military personnel to describe Iraqis and other Arabs.
Sean Bujno, a former U.S. Army sergeant who was honorably discharged in 2009, said his plates weren't meant to offend, but to show solidarity with other veterans. He sued the state, asserting that his rights of free speech and due process were violated by the DMV commissioner's decision to pull his tags.
HIstorically, Haji is a term used to describe a muslim who has made the Hajj, Islam's obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. But over the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Haji has taken another meaning, often used to label anything Arab or having to do with Arabs. When I visited Iraq in 2009, most American military (and some State Department) employees referred to the bodegas where you could buy smokes, trinkets and pirated DVDs as Haji shops. Jury rigging was relabeled Haji rigging, and so on. It was one of those words that was bandied about quite a bit — unless there were Iraqis around.
Bujno's lawyer told the Virginian-Pilot that his vanity plates weren't meant as a racial insult, but as a show of unity with other troops who served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee didn't take his plates that way. Abed Ayoub, AAADC's legal director, told the Pilot that Bujno's plates stood as a veiled threat against Arab Americans, no different than if someone singled out another racial or ethnic group.
"What else could he mean? I mean, we aren't hiding," he told Pilot reporters. "What if it was ICUJEW? Would we tolerate that? Absolutely not."
While the Virginia DMV occasionally makes questionable calls vis-a-vis vanity plates, they did the right thing on this one. Being a veteran is undoubtedly tough for many, so unity and mutual support is important. But this plate, which hung next to a bumper sticker reading "God bless our troops, especially our snipers," probably wasn't helping anyone. This isn't "FOSAMA," it refers to an entire group.
If you're astounded that it took the state four years to catch the problem, we are talking about the DMV here. (Hat tip to Peter!)
Photo credit: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock