In some Muslim eyes, another case of "Flying while Muslim"

Protesting their treatment
Omar Shahin, left, president of the North American Imams Federation, speaks to the news media with fellow Imam Marwan Sadeddin about their removal on Monday from US Airways flight 300 in Minneapolis after landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Tuesday.
Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images

(AP) The police report listed the incident as "Security-Other," but some saw the detention of imams at the airport here as another case of "Flying while Muslim" - the sense that Muslims come in for extra scrutiny when they fly.

In the most recent case, six Muslim scholars were taken off a US Airways flight to Phoenix after a passenger reported overhearing them criticize the U.S. in Iraq and speaking angrily near the gate. The men said they had been praying.

The flight's captain ordered the men off the plane, and they were interrogated by the FBI and the Secret Service. They had to fly a different airline out of town on Tuesday after US Airways refused to let them on any of its flights.

It was just the latest in a line of incidents involving passengers who were Muslim or, in some cases, just not Caucasian. In August a flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai was escorted back to the airport by F-16 fighters because a group of Indians on the plane had a large number of cell phones, notebook computers and hard drives, and refused to follow the crew's instructions, authorities said.

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Marwan Sadeddin
Marwan Sadeddin (C) speaks to the news media about his removal on Monday from US Airways flight 300 in Minneapolis, along with fellow Muslim imams Omar Shahin (L), president of the North American Imams Federation, and Mahmoud Slyman (R) after landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona. Three other members of the group were also removed from the plane and questioned. The six were returning from attending a conference of the Federation.
Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images

Dr. Shahid Athar avoids bringing Arabic literature with him when he flies to avoid raising the suspicions of airport screeners. Athar, head of medical ethics for the Islamic Medical Association of North America and a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, still prays before he flies. Generally quietly, in a corner. He said he has never had any run-ins with airport security.

"In this country, there was a time that Catholics were profiled, and they were stereotyped and discriminated (against), and Jewish people. It looks like it is our turn now," said Athar, who has written and lectured on Muslim interaction in the West. "We need to learn from their experience not to give in on this type of thing."

The scholars "thought that they are living in a society which is free, a society of believers, where prayer is something good to do," he said. Unfortunately, though, passengers "thought Muslims were supposed to pray before they blow up things."

"Unfortunately, this is a growing problem of singling out Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims at airport, and it's one that we've been addressing for some time," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group planned to file a complaint over the incident, Hooper said.

The six scholars had been in Minneapolis for a conference of the North American Imams Federation. Those taken off the plane included Imar Shahin, the group's president.

"It's discrimination," he said. He called for a boycott of US Airways.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Tuesday that the group has been "receiving more reports of 'flying while Muslim' and racial profiling incidents."

An airport police report said a US Airways manager said three of the men had one-way tickets and no checked baggage. A passenger told police the men were praying and making critical comments about the war in Iraq. Some of the men also asked for seat belt extensions even though a flight attendant told police she thought they didn't need them.

The police report said the flight's captain had already decided he wanted the men off the plane after the passenger passed him a note pointing out "suspicious Arabic men."

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 they got off the plane without incident.

"The police came and take us off the plane in front of all the passengers in a very humiliated way," Shahin said. "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."

The Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said in a letter Tuesday it "has opened a review of this matter, as it relates to the actions of employees of this Department."

It also said the department will coordinate with other government agencies with the authority to review the conduct of airline and other government employees.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said that office "will routinely review incidents that involve allegations that involve mistreatment of individuals in the Arab and Muslim community."

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 was from Bakersfield, Calif.

"May Allah the God forgive everyone who did this," Shahin said before going through the security checkpoint on Tuesday in Minneapolis. "We are doing this because we want America - the America we love and the America we came for. Forgiveness, tranquility, self-control, freedom of practicing your faith."

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.

In Phoenix, CAIR spokeswoman Bushra Khan said the US Airways flight crews should take "sensitivity training" and learn the difference between Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists.

"The fact that this very small group (terrorists) has hijacked our religion is not going to deter us from speaking out," Khan said. "Prayer is not a suspicious or criminal activity."