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

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.

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.

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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.

From the imams' perspective, their behavior was nothing unusual, and they denied making any statements about US foreign policy or Saddam Hussein. At issue, the imams' complaint says, is their right to practice their religion and travel in the United States free from the fear of being unfairly accused and detained because of unfounded allegations. The goal of their suit is not to intimidate anyone, their lawyers say, but to force the airline to train its employees to use better judgment when dealing with similar instances.

"Of course people should report suspicious activity," says Arsalan Iftikar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, which has worked closely with the imams. "Nobody who reported any suspicious activity in good faith is a target in this lawsuit. However, making false and defamatory statements is not protected by law, and those are the people we want to depose."

Because the imams' suit also lists the passengers who allegedly made false reports, some conservative groups have taken up the defendant passengers' cause. They say the suit is part of a larger strategy by Islamist extremists to probe airline security and intimidate Americans from reporting suspicious activity.

They point to affidavits in the airport-police reports, in which another passenger and several crew members reported the imams changing seats and asking for seat-belt extensions. A US Airways flight attendant who was not working, but traveling on the flight, told police she thought the blind imam was "faking."

In the context of the age of terrorism, say conservative groups and others, the airline and the passengers – who are referred to as "John Does" in the suit – behaved appropriately.

"This suit is designed to harass and scare the passengers and to fire a shot across the bow for future John Doe passengers to give them serious pause before they report any suspicious behavior for fear of being dragged into a future lawsuit," says Gerry Nolting, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents one of the passengers pro bono. "My John Doe was simply performing his civic duty, and he shouldn't have this hanging over his head."

For the imams, the bottom line is that they believe that US Airways and its employees failed to make any effort to assess the validity of the complaints before taking action.

"If people are making claims that someone is chanting pro-Saddam statements, you need to authenticate the veracity of that. You shouldn't just throw them off the plane," says Mr. Iftikar of CAIR.

Some Muslim-Americans, noting the high levels of anxiety at airports, oppose the imams' decision to sue the passengers and the airline, saying the lawsuit will further inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in America.

"The political Islamist movement wants to make this about prayer, but it really isn't. They were pulled off the plane for a series of behaviors that were suspect," says M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Phoenix. "There may have been things said about them that weren't true, but that needs to be figured out afterward. [The suit] is going to compromise our most important anti-terrorist tool – people's observations."

As the controversy has escalated, some analysts see it as a sign that Muslim-American leaders need to educate the nation more about Muslims in the US.

"In a world of terror, there's plenty to be afraid of, but you can't be afraid of 1 billion Muslims," says John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, a polling firm based in Utica, N.Y. "We can't live in a world like that."

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