Not the Flying Imams

Debra J. Saunders

4/8/2007 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

In November, US Airways kicked six imams off a plane bound for Phoenix from Minneapolis. According to news reports, passengers and crew had become spooked watching some of the imams pray by the gate, then after boarding, saw the imams move around the plane as they spoke in Arabic -- some said the imams spoke of Saddam Hussein, which the imams deny. They said that the imams also had requested seat-belt extenders -- heavy metal objects -- which some feared could be used as weapons. The imams then were questioned and released without being charged.

Last month, the imams filed a lawsuit against US Airways, the airport and unnamed passengers who complained to airline personnel about the imams' behavior. The suit charges that these John Doe passengers "may have made false reports against plaintiffs solely with the intent to discriminate against them on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity and national origin."

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., promptly introduced an amendment to a measure to protect passengers, lest this lawsuit chill the flying public's willingness to report suspicious behavior. King's amendment has passed through the House.

Minneapolis attorney Gerry Nolting offered to represent any John Does for free. As he told me, the FAA relies on passengers to report suspicious activity to protect the flying public. Suing the John Doe passengers, he noted, would have "a chilling effect" by signaling to passengers that if they report suspicious behavior, "you'll be the next defendant."

Meanwhile, the whole episode had some observers wondering about this post-9/11 controversy. As Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona internist and former Navy medical officer who founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy to serve as a "voice for liberty-minded Muslims in America in the war on terror," wrote of the "flying imam" controversy, "Was their behavior part of a pre-arranged stunt for the purpose of gathering sympathy on a false premise that Muslims in America are being 'victimized?'"

To go by the imams' complaint, the imams did nothing provocative. They simply prayed in public, then moved about the plane trying to make sure that all the men, including Marwan Sadeddin, who is blind, were comfortable. Apparently, Sadeddin and fellow Arizonan Omar Shahin requested seat-belt extensions because they're portly guys.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told me it is wrongheaded for observers to be suspicious of innocent behavior -- praying or asking for a seat-belt extension -- simply because a Muslim does it. "That Muslim is wearing a tie," Hooper scoffed. "He can take it off and strangle someone."

And, "Once they were seen praying, every action they took became suspicious in the eyes of some passengers." That's wrong, because Americans have the right to pray in public.

CAIR supports the suit, including the targeting of John Doe passengers, Hooper told me, because, "If somebody believes they have been discriminated against maliciously and willfully, they have a right to challenge that discrimination." This suit, he argued, comes from the imams' desire "to clear their names."

Here's the problem: The imams are not going to clear their names by going after passengers who, rightly or wrongly, alerted airline personnel to the imams.

By so doing, the lawsuit reinforces the suspicion that the imams were acting in a deliberately provocative manner. At the very least, the imams were utterly insensitive to passengers' fears of a 9/11-like attack.

"It was not just one thing," Nolting noted. "It was a series of behaviors. I assume it was the pilot, based on the totality of the information he had, that made him conclude that he didn't want these folks on his plane."

Nolting added, "I don't know too many businesses who like to turn away paying customers." Or, as Jasser put it, "I think they were trying to make a point." That point could be to further "the victimization agenda of organizations like CAIR."

This much is clear: If CAIR and the imams want to prompt those who are suspicious of Islam to rethink their prejudices and be sensitive to the Muslim perspective, they picked a truly boneheaded way to do it.