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Muslim imams call for boycott after US Airways flap
The five Phoenix-area imams and one Californian flew on US Airways on their way to Minneapolis late last week to attend the fourth annual conference of North American Imams Federation (NAIF), which featured more than 170 Imams from around the country.
After hours in handcuffs and under questioning by the FBI, the Secret Service and the police, the men were released from the airport late Monday evening. By early Tuesday morning, they showed up at US Airway’s ticket counter, only to be informed that they will not be flying on US Airways, and that their tickets will be refunded.
“This is a discrimination against imams,” said a visibly irked Imam Omar Shahin, who led the group’s unsuccessful negotiation with a US Airways supervisor. “We Love America, but we condemn this action.”
“We call on Muslims and non-Muslims to boycott US Airways until they change their policies,” he added.
The unnamed US Airways supervisor gave no reason for her refusal to transport the imams, despite being cleared by the multiple security agencies the night before. But she asked the imams to “please leave the counter,” after Shahin repeatedly asked her to sell him six new tickets. She offered him a “customer satisfaction phone number,” but Shahin wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t immediately clear if US Airways had actually refunded the imams’ tickets.
The imams were removed from US Airways flight on Monday evening, apparently after a passenger told airline staff that the imams were behaving suspiciously.
One of the imams, Ahmed Shqeirat, denied those accusations. He also denied that they refused to get off the plane when asked by the pilot, as previously reported on the news media. “In fact, the pilot misled the passengers by telling them that he’s delaying the takeoff due to some paper work,” he said. “The fact is, that only three of us decided to say the evening prayer in the terminal, not inside the plane as was falsely circulated.”
Muslims are allowed to merge their daily five prayers into three while traveling. Shqeirat said the three who were praying, “performed their prayers quietly in an isolated corner.”
US Airways issued a statement saying that it doesn’t condone discrimination, and will investigate the incident internally.
Airport spokesman Pat Hogan said that airlines retain the right to refuse to carry anyone they deem inconveniences their business.
Asked if praying in airports is a good idea to continue, the imams said while they wouldn’t bend for a social pressure, they will consider alternatives.
In response to the accusations that the imams were chanting “Allah,” Shqeirat said that some people might have discerned it in the context of “Allahu Akbar,” which is the phrase Muslims use throughout the prayer’s motions.
Local and national reaction
What it boils down to, says Dr. Waleed Meneese, the Imam of Daralfarooq mosque in Southeast Minneapolis, “is that the faith of 1.5 billion people is becoming a suspicious practice in America.”
Imam Meneese, a ranking member of NAIF and co-organizer of the Minneapolis conference, hosted the six imams at his home after they were removed from the flight.
“Our community feels injured by this incident,” he said.
Imam Shqeirat said that they were “treated as if they were terrorists.” He and the other five imams were handcuffed and questioned for hours, while police dogs sniffed their luggage.
Airport trouble is not new to him, Shqeirat said, “but I’ve never been handcuffed.” A big “S” meaning “select” stamped on his ticket, he said, is routine as he travels around the country. “And that’s understandable,” he said.
In Washington, Corey Saylor, the government affairs director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR),characterized the incident as a “Muslim stereotyping,” and said it was “deeply troubling.”
Saylor said his organization is examining options to lodge a complaint with the appropriate authorities, to “determine if proper procedures were followed.”
In Phoenix, “a special homecoming” that features “Muslim, Christian and Jewish friends is awaiting to receive the Imams in celebration and solidarity,” said Mohamed Abu Hannoud, a civil rights officer at CAIR’s Arizona chapter.
© 2006 Abdirahman Aynte