WASHINGTON – Six imams, who were removed from a U.S. Airways flight last year, have filed a lawsuit for racial and religious discrimination, unleashing a fresh outcry from right-wing bloggers, columnists, and media, who commented extensively against the imams when they were first de-planed in November.
Headlines such as "The Faking Imams," and "How the imams terrorized an airliner," have prompted online discussions in which the imams are being accused of suing innocent passengers and having links to terrorism. The U.S. House of Representatives even proposed legislation (HR 1401) to give immunity to "John Doe" airline passengers who report suspicious activity. Media reports also quoted fringe Muslims denouncing the imams’ actions.
However, the imams and their supporters have a different story.
They say these tactics point to growing politics and sentiments of fear, and how Islamophobia hysteria is manifesting itself in America’s social fabric. The real issue is one of racial profiling and civil liberties, they say.
"As Americans, we deserve security based on intelligence and evidence — not paranoia, false reporting, bigotry and witch hunts at 32,000 feet," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director at the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which supports the imams’ lawsuit.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, lists U.S. Airways and Minnesota’s Metropolitan Airport Commission as defendants. It claims U.S. Airways’ alleged discriminatory actions were based on the imams’ "perceived race, religion, color, ethnicity, alienage, ancestry, and/or national origin."
It goes on to state, "Because of Defendants’ discriminatory acts, Plaintiffs were denied the right to make and enforce a contract, subjected to unlawful discrimination by a recipient of federal financial assistance, denied equal treatment in a place of public accommodation, and falsely arrested and detained by law enforcement officers."
Omar Mohammedi, the imams’ lawyer, said the suit, which names "possible defendants John Does," is not meant to go after passengers who raise valid concerns about security. Rather, the New York-based attorney said, the suit seeks to bring those passengers to justice who may have acted in bad faith out of prejudice.
"As an attorney, I have seen a lot of abuse by the general public when it comes to members of the community creating stories that do not exist," Mohammedi said.
Imam Omar Shaheen, the spokesman of the imams, seconded Mohammedi’s statement. "I am one to always encourage people to report suspicious behavior. I have done it myself," said Imam Shaheen. He added that he does not believe those passengers who reported praying as suspicious behavior had malicious intent, rather their actions stemmed out of fear and misunderstanding.
The problem, Shaheen said, is the deliberate, untrue statements made against the imams based on what he calls racial profiling. For example, various media outlets reported that passengers said the imams made political statements and mentioned "Saddam," which Imam Shaheen states was absolutely untrue.
Shaheen added that the lawsuit is an initiative to protect all people from those who falsely report suspicious behavior in the future.
In response to the lawsuit, conservative Rep. Peter King (R-NY) proposed legislation HR 1401 that gives immunity to "John Doe" airline passengers who report suspicious activity.
The bill in the House has ignited right-wing discourse calling for more vigilance against potential terrorists. Outlets such as www.frontpagemag.com are insinuating that there is more to the incident: "These men were actually scheming to conduct a terrorist caper, or they were setting themselves up to be accused of such a despicable stunt so that they then might clearly open the way to a racial profiling and/or a religious freedom lawsuit that could conceivably eliminate any sort of racial profiling for Muslims."
But Mohammedi asserts that the bill is a willful attempt to "create hysteria, Islamophobia, and to target members of the community." King spoke out against the imams’ lawsuit on the House floor, a calculated move Mohammedi said was meant "to intentionally misinform the public that we are filing this lawsuit against people who report suspicious activity in good faith, which is not the case."
What alarms Mohammedi more about HR1401 is a lesser known proposed provision which would allow airlines to have immunity from lawsuits. "This is very dangerous. It is not only going to affect the Muslim community but all minorities. They don’t even talk about this provision," he exclaimed, vowing to oppose it.
Not surprisingly, Mohammedi himself has come under attack. New York assemblyman Rory I. Lancman requested to remove Mohammedi from his position as a New York City Commissioner on Human Rights, saying New Yorkers would be discouraged from reporting suspicious activity "because they would fear the possibility of being sued by their own human rights commissioner." Mohammedi said such attempts send a "chilling message" and aim to diminish the legal system and provide no recourse to community members and lawyers to file legitimate lawsuits.
Additionally, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an institute that says it is dedicated to the free expression of all religious traditions, also sent a three-page letter to CAIR asking that the "John Does" be removed from the lawsuit. "It is most certainly the right of individual citizens and, indeed, their duty - especially in wartime - to report their suspicions to the authorities," asserted Director Kevin Hasson, who said the fund would represent for free any of the "John Does" mentioned in the article.
But CAIR maintained that all these examples stemmed from the same "false allegations" that the imams were suing ordinary citizens. In a letter to Hasson, Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR’s national office, clarified, "The only individuals against whom suit may be raised in this litigation are those who may have knowingly made false reports against the imams with the intent to discriminate against them."
"The imams will not sue any passengers who reported suspicious activity in good faith, even when the ‘suspicious’ behavior included the imams’ constitutionally-protected right to practice their religion without fear or intimidation," Awad added.
Shaheen stated that amidst the backlash, the humiliating treatment of the imams has been forgotten. "They handcuffed us and led us down the stairs from the plane, everyone could see us being arrested," Shaheen said. The imams were then transported one by one to the airport police station and placed in separate cells. Further, when the police apologized and released the six imams, U.S. Airways employees still refused to let them board another flight and instead refunded their money and told them to take another airline.
"It was the airline’s mistake; they had no right to refuse us service - we were cleared," relayed Shaheen.
Safiya Ghori, director of government relations of the Muslim Public Affairs Council agreed. "By law, an airline cannot discriminate against a passenger based on race or religion," said Ghori, whose organization filed complaints on behalf of the imams with the Departments of Transportation, Justice, and Homeland Security.
"These people are innocent people who have been discriminated against because of their religion race or national origin. Nothing else, nothing more," said Mohammedi, determinedly. "This case cannot be tried in the media, this course cannot be tried in the floor of the House, this case will be tried in the court before a judge, and we believe that justice will take its course."