Imams outline discrimination lawsuit against US Airways

Protesting their treatment
Omar Shahin, left, president of the North American Imams Federation, spoke to the news media with fellow Imam Marwan Sadeddin after they were removed from a US Airways flight in Minneapolis in November 2006.
Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images

News of the clerics' removal from the US Airways flight rippled through Minnesota last November, as the imams complained they were guilty of nothing other than the perceived transgression of flying while Muslim. Now, they've taken their complaint to U.S. District Court and on Tuesday Didmar Faja recounted their removal from the plane

"We were then led off the plane handcuffed and searched right on the jetway," he said. "We were humiliated and treated as if we were criminals."

Faja and his colleagues live in Arizona and California. They were attempting to fly back to Phoenix after attending the North American Conference of Imams in Minneapolis.

The plaintiffs say while waiting to board the flight they were talking and joking in both Arabic and English and that at one point four of them knelt in prayer.

"To date we continue to be defamed, and feel anxiety every time we fly. We are respected community leaders, and this incident has caused us extreme harm."

Their behavior apparently caused concern among other passengers, who alerted authorities, prompting their removal.

Faja, who heads the Albanian Islamic Center in Phoenix, says his request for an attorney went unheeded.

"We were taken to the police detention area and interrogated by the FBI and Secret Service," he said. "Throughout these events, all I could remember was my life during the era of Communism in Albania."

Faja and the attorney for the imams, Omar Mohammedi, say even after the men were cleared by law enforcement authorities, US Airways refused to let them board any of the airline's flights.

The lawsuit alleges discrimination on the part of US Airways and the Metropolitan Airports Commission. The named defendants also include airline staff and various unidentified passengers.

US Airways officials have defended the decision to remove the imams. There were reports of repeated use of the word Allah, switching of seats and requests for seat belt extenders.

With the case now pending in court, representatives of the defendants were guarded in their comments. A spokeswoman for US Airways, Valerie Wunder, says the company stands by its actions of November 20.

"We continue to back the actions of our crew and ground employees," she said. "This was not about prayer, but rather about behavior on the plane that led to a decision by our crew members -- which was backed by local law enforcement -- to remove these customers from the airplane for further questioning."

Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan says airport police reacted appropriately in responding to US Airways' call.

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