Nov. 22, 2006: Uproar follows imams' detention

  • Article by: Bob Von Sternberg and Pamela Miller
  • Star Tribune
  • November 20, 2007 - 9:17 PM

From now on, Omar Shahin won't be praying at the airport while waiting for a flight.

"This was humiliating, the worst moment of my life," Shahin said Tuesday, a day after he and five fellow Muslim imams were escorted off a US Airways jet at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"To practice your faith and pray is a crime in America?" he said.

The incident set off a nationwide uproar, and the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said it will review the incident.

Bloggers and talk radio buzzed about the need to be vigilant against potential terrorists, while civil rights advocates and Muslim leaders cried foul. The national Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called for a congressional hearing about ethnic and religious profiling at airports.

Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Somali Justice Advocacy Center questioned the detention.

Bushra Khan, spokeswoman for CAIR's Arizona chapter, said, "All these men did was pray, and it was misunderstood. The bottom line is that they were Middle Eastern-looking men ... and that scares some people."

US Airways said that it will fully investigate the matter and that passenger safety is paramount.

The religious leaders were heading home after a three-day North American Imams Federation conference in Bloomington.

The pilot ordered the men off the flight after their praying, conversation and behavior alarmed several passengers and flight attendants.

The imams denied that they did or said anything that could be considered threatening. They were released without charges after being questioned for five hours by federal law enforcement officials.

Left behind by US Airways

Shahin, president of the imams' group, called for a boycott of US Airways after an agent and his supervisor, without giving a reason, refused to sell him replacement tickets Tuesday morning.

"I'm not going to stay silent," Shahin said. "I came to this country to enjoy justice and freedom."

The US Airways supervisor told Shahin that his tickets had been refunded and that he would have to go to another airline. The supervisor offered Shahin a customer service phone number.

"I want to go home. I don't want phone numbers," Shahin said. "They have no reason to refuse service to us just because of the way we look."

He bought six one-way tickets at the Northwest Airlines counter, and the men flew to Phoenix without incident.

'Praying very loud'

In a statement to police, a US Airways gate agent wrote that three of the men prayed in Arabic at the gate. "I was suspicious by the way they were praying very loud," the gate agent said.

Said Shahin: "We were never bothering anyone, not saying anything loudly. We were just prostrating ourselves, the normal way we pray."

Devout Muslims pray five times a day, but practices vary among cultural groups, said Owais Bayunus, a Muslim scholar in the Twin Cities.

"Those who pray in the airport would be more conservative Muslims who stop to pray at the designated times no matter where they are," he said. "Others accept the fatwa [an opinion by an Islamic legal scholar] that it is acceptable to combine the prayers during travel."

Before passengers boarded, one became alarmed by an overheard discussion. "They seemed angry," he wrote in a police statement. "Mentioned 'U.S.' and 'killing Saddam.' Two men then swore slightly under their breath/mumbled. They spoke Arabic again. The gate called boarding for the flight. The men then chanted 'Allah, Allah, Allah.' "

Marwan Sadeddin, another of the imams, said, "What bothers me the most is these false statements and lies that we were shouting, 'Allah, Allah.' This never happened."

Another, Ahmad Shqeirat, said, "That is a lie. We were not talking politics. And even if we did, so what? What is suspicious about that?"

Once the six were seated, two in front, two in the middle and two in back, and paid visits to each other to chat, some passengers became alarmed, the police report said. One passed a note to a flight attendant citing the alleged comments about Allah and Saddam.

Flight attendants alerted the pilot, who called airport police and asked them to remove the men from the plane. They left "cooperatively," according to the police report.

A bomb-sniffing dog examined the men, their luggage and the entire airplane and found nothing. The plane left for Phoenix about three hours late after the other 141 passengers reboarded.

After being questioned by agents of the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration, the men were released.

Asad Zaman, communications director for the Muslim American Society (MAS) of Minnesota, said an Arizona MAS chapter member called him for help about 11 p.m. Monday because the six imams had not arrived and one had called his wife to say police had detained them.

Within 10 minutes of a Minnesota imam's call to police, the six were free, Zaman said.

"This event would be the equivalent of Roman Catholic bishops being arrested in China because they wore clerical robes and invoked Jesus Christ in prayers," Zaman said. • 612-673-7184 • 612-673-4290

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