Muslim clerics removed from US Airways claim discrimination

Tuesday, November 21st 2006, 7:48 pm
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Six Muslim clerics removed from a US Airways flight said Tuesday they were victims of discrimination and called for a boycott of the airline.

The imams were removed from the flight to Phoenix on Monday night after three of them said their normal evening prayers in the terminal in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before boarding, said Omar Shahin, president of the North American Imams Federation. They were among the 150 imams who attended a federation meeting in Minneapolis.

``The police came and take us off the plane in front of all the passengers in a very humiliated way,'' said Shahin. ``I never felt bad in my life like yesterday. It was the worst moment in my life when I see six imams, six leaders in this community, humiliated.''

They said they were questioned by police and the FBI, detained in a holding cell with loud music and occasionally surrounded by police dogs.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said in a letter Tuesday it had opened an investigation.

US Airways Group Inc. issued a statement saying it was interviewing crew members and ground workers to find out more about what happened.

``We are always concerned when passengers are inconvenienced and especially concerned when a situation occurs that causes customers to feel their dignity was compromised. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,'' the airline said.

An airport police report said the flight's captain had already decided he wanted the men off the plane after the passenger passed a flight attendant a note pointing out ``Arabic men.''

Witnesses said the men prayed in the terminal and made critical comments about the Iraq war, according to the police report, and a US Airways manager said three of the men had only one-way tickets and no checked baggage.

An airport police officer and a federal air marshal agreed that the combination of circumstances was suspicious, and eventually asked the men to leave the airplane, the police report said.

``There were a number of things that gave the flight crew pause,'' Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. It wasn't immediately possible to verify whether the passengers who reported suspicious activity witnessed it themselves.

But Shahin and Marwan Sadeddin, another of the imams, strongly denied doing anything out of the ordinary. They entered the aircraft individually, except for Sadeddin, who is blind and needed a guide, Shahin said. Once on the plane, the six did not sit together, he said.

Shahin said no one asked the six to leave until police arrived, when the group complied.

The other passengers on the flight, which was carrying 141 passengers and five crew members, were re-screened for boarding. The plane took off about three hours after the men were removed.

On Tuesday, US Airways refused to honor the group's tickets or allow them to buy new ones, saying their payment for Monday's flight had been refunded.

Shahin eventually booked flights on Northwest Airlines, to Phoenix for five of the imams from the Phoenix-Tempe area and to Los Angeles for the sixth, who is from Bakersfield, Calif.

Furious and travel-weary, the five Muslim scholars were greeted in Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport terminal to chants of ``Allah-U Akbar'' (God is great) from family and friends.

US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader, who came to the airport to see the scholars, said she didn't have much information about what happened in Minneapolis and wasn't prepared to apologize.

``I can't say that at this point,'' Rader said. ``We want to talk to our employees. We want to talk to these customers and let them know we want to do the right thing.''

Shahin said his days of praying in airports may be over. ``It's terrible, unfortunately,'' he said. ``In America we have no freedom to practice our faith, to do our faith.''

Shahin expressed frustration that, despite extensive efforts by him and other Muslim leaders since even before the September 11th terrorist attacks, so many Americans know so little about Islam, which requires prayer five times a day.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he hoped the incident would ``raise awareness among the general public and the airline industry that praying as a Muslim and flying as a Muslim should not trigger any fear and any prejudice.''