Plane Prayers

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

AUS AIRWAYS CREW invited controversy -- and a bevy of unanswered questions -- last week when it kicked six Muslim imams off a flight. That decision led to, among other things, a "pray-in" protest at Reagan National Airport on Monday. There's a disturbing possibility that innocent passengers were removed from their flight, handcuffed, detained and denied the opportunity to purchase another ticket home just because of a preflight expression of faith.

Many facts of the case are still the subject of debate, but we know this much: Last week, six imams heading home from a conference in Minnesota unrolled rugs before boarding a US Airways flight to Arizona and said their evening prayers. When they boarded, they sat in different sections of the aircraft. Another passenger passed a note to a flight attendant expressing discomfort that Arabic men were moving around the airplane. The captain threw them off, and the local police and the FBI detained them for questioning. The imams were later cleared for flying.

According to some accounts, the imams declined to sit in their assigned seats, instead choosing to occupy different sections of the plane in a manner akin to that of the Sept. 11 hijackers. While boarding, they may have expressed disdain for the American effort in Iraq and spoken favorably of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. A US Airways spokeswoman notes that they asked for seat-belt extenders, which some say could have been used to hit or strangle others, even though they are not obese. Another airline employee indicated that three of the men had one-way tickets and checked no baggage. The imams, however, say that they carried round-trip tickets and didn't talk politics on the jetway. A representative also said that any seat switching they did was innocent.

US Airways stands by its decision to boot the men from the plane, saying that, taken as a whole, their behavior after boarding was suspect. But the airline and the authorities who detained the imams have questions to answer publicly about the incident. Were they switching seats suspiciously? Did the imams have round-trip or one-way tickets? Did the men ask for seat-belt extenders, and if so did they give any reason?

Answers to these questions might help explain the airline and official actions, even if they do not end up justifying those actions. Pilots and others have to make difficult decisions when time is short and evidence tough to verify. But complete information on this case also could demonstrate that it stemmed from nothing more than a nervous passenger fueling unfair suspicion after seeing the men at prayer. And that's a scary possibility. America can't become a country so locked by fear that those who unfurl a prayer rug automatically become suspects.

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