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In imams' airline case, a clash of rights, prejudice, security

A lawsuit brought by six imams who were removed from a flight raises issues about other passengers voicing complaints.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2007


In this age of global terrorism, some cherished American values – like the right to pray, and say what you think – are clashing in unprecedented ways.

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Take the controversy over six imams who were removed from a US Airways flight last October, and their recent decision to sue for discrimination – not just the airline and its employees, but also some passengers who complained about their preflight behavior.

At the heart of the controversy are Americans' concern about terrorism, ignorance about Islam, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. In the middle are the airlines, which are charged with the difficult task of sorting out legitimate complaints about unusual behavior from those based on prejudice and fear of people's appearance – and to do it in a short period when dealing with a particular flight.

The imams' lawsuit – brought in March at the federal district court in Minnesota – presents a thorny problem. On one hand, if individuals can be sued for making complaints that turn out to be false, it may discourage others from reporting suspicious activity. On the other, some people "still act out of prejudice," says Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minneapolis.

"What we need to do is to figure out ways to encourage people to make responsible complaints," she says. "Part of that is training those in the airlines to ask questions to help them sort out the basis for the complaints – whether it was a genuinely suspicious behavior, or is it simply a bias complaint motivated by somebody looking different."

The October incident sparked outrage among civil libertarians, Muslim-Americans, and others who thought it was un-American for five US citizens and a legal resident, who'd all been thoroughly screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to be suddenly taken off the plane as it sat at the gate because their behavior and Middle Eastern appearance frightened a few passengers.

The men were returning from a religious conference in Minneapolis that focused, among other things, on religious tolerance. After they went through the TSA screening process for passengers, they went to the gate for their 5:45 p.m. flight to Phoenix. It was time for afternoon prayers and so, according to the imams' complaint, three of them went to pray while the other three watched their bags.

One imam, a frequent-flier gold-card member, was upgraded to first class. He asked if he could also upgrade some of his colleagues, but was told first class was full. Once on board, the upgraded imam asked for a seat-belt extension to accommodate his girth, as he does every time he flies, according to the imams' complaint. A second imam also asked for a seat-belt extension, while another asked a passenger if he could change seats so that he could sit next to a colleague who is blind and may have needed help. He also went to talk briefly to his friend in first class.

A passenger watched, then sent a note to the plane's captain. According to airport-police records, it read: "6 suspicious Arabic men on plane spread out in their seats…. All were together, saying '… Allah … Allah ...,' cursing US involvement w/ Saddam Hussein before flight."

Airport police arrived shortly thereafter, and all six imams were taken off the plane, searched, and detained. After five hours of questioning, the FBI cleared them of any wrongdoing. Then US Airways refused to board them on another flight.