2 Nov, 2009
In a move that should be a learning experience for aviation security, immigration and security authorities worldwide, U.S. Airways last month (on October 20 2009) agreed to an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed by six imams, or Islamic religious leaders, who were arrested after being removed from a US Airways flight in Minnesota in 2006.
According to a brief announcement on the terms, the six religious leaders will receive an undisclosed amount in compensation. Confidentiality clauses built into the agreement prevented further details from being disclosed in the statement which said simply that the case was resolved to “the satisfaction of all parties.”
The Washington DC-based Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) which has championed the imams’ rights since they were removed from the plane hailed the settlement, which has been almost totally ignored by the global travel media.
“(It) is a clear victory for justice and civil rights over fear and the phenomenon of ‘flying while Muslim’ in the post-9/11 era,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.
Last July, a judge in Minnesota sided with the imams on key issues in their lawsuit against those involved in their removal from the plane. U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery cleared the way for a trial by denying several motions to dismiss the case and ruling that a law passed by Congress after the incident does not grant protection from lawsuits to those sued by the imams.
The judge also ruled that the actions of the imams prior to their flight did not justify their detention. She noted that the imams were subjected to “extreme fear and humiliation of being falsely identified as dangerous terrorists” and said “similar behavior by Russian Orthodox priests or Franciscan monks would likely not have elicited this response.”
In an opinion piece published in the publication USA Today, CAIR’s National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper called for a global ban on religious and racial profiling.
He said that while the settlement should not prevent anyone from acting on legitimate security concerns, “reports based solely on anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias and hysteria should not be used as the basis for a “flying while Muslim” incident.
“Absent actual suspicious behavior, merely offering one of the five-daily Islamic prayers in a terminal, speaking Arabic to a fellow passenger, wearing a head scarf, or “looking Muslim” is insufficient justification to detain passengers or remove them from a flight.”
“American Muslims are just as concerned about flight safety and security as citizens of other faiths. They and their families take the same flights and are subject to the same risks as other members of the travelling public. Flight safety should be based on legitimate law enforcement techniques, not on racial or religious profiling.”
Added Mr Hooper, “Our nation’s civil rights movement has been advancing steadily for decades, despite calls to maintain the status quo or suggestions to curtail the rights of certain citizens. That movement toward justice for all must not be put into reverse because of post-9/11 fears. When anyone’s rights are diminished, all Americans’ rights are threatened.”
Mr Hooper said “America is an increasingly diverse society in terms of race, religion and ethnicity” and must seek to “prevent situations in which stereotypes or bias can create a snowball effect of escalating discrimination.”
He added, “Our nation’s history has been marred by periods in which groups — whether Irish Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans, or others — were deemed appropriate targets for discrimination. Thankfully, Americans are capable of looking beyond the prejudices of the moment to see a future of equal treatment for all.”
The case, which galvanised Muslim travellers all around the world who are frequently to subjected to racial and religious profiling at international airports and border checkpoints, was set to go further in a lawsuit against the Minnesota Metropolitan Airport Commission, US Airways and possibly the FBI on the grounds of improper arrest and other acts of discrimination or defamation.
According to a commentary in the Minnesota Post, “The case caused a huge hullabaloo around these parts. Congress even passed a law — and the Minnesota case was discussed on the floor of the House as the motivation for the law — designed to protect people from reporting their suspicions under circumstances like this.”
Said the commentator, Eric Black, “The imams, and the way they were arrested, became for a time the symbol of the post-9/11 national nervousness about Middle Easterners on airplanes and for the allegation that you could get arrested for the “crime” of “flying while Muslim.”
“The nervousness was understandable, but that didn’t make it constitutional. The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable seizures by the government, which in a case like this means that even the shock of the 9/11 attacks didn’t repeal the simple rule that police cannot arrest someone unless they have probable cause to believe that the arrestees have committed a crime…”
He added, “As you review the facts of the case, ask yourself which of the “suspicious” actions of the imams would have been suspicious if they had not been Muslims.”
Further details about the entire incident are available on the website www.flyingwhilemuslim.org