Diversity of Opinion on Imams' Dispute With Airline

Muslims pray near the ticketing area of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Muslim leaders urged airport officials to set aside a prayer room after six imams were removed from a US Airways flight last month.
Muslims pray near the ticketing area of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Muslim leaders urged airport officials to set aside a prayer room after six imams were removed from a US Airways flight last month. (By Craig Lassig -- Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 7 -- For years, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been known for its liberalism and tolerance, especially when it comes to religion. Many Muslims, including the largest population of Somalis outside of Mogadishu, make their home in the Twin Cities. The area just elected the nation's first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison (D).

"We are well known for acceptance at a period in time when much of America feels like an unwelcome place" for Muslims, said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "This is a place where Muslims are succeeding and thriving in leadership positions."

So, last month's removal of six imams from a Phoenix-bound US Airways flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has prompted hand-wringing, finger-pointing, calls for greater sensitivity to religious diversity and more communication between non-Muslims and Muslims.

Police and airline officials say the imams, who attended a national conference of Muslim clerics, were removed after exhibiting suspicious behavior, including uttering anti-American statements, changing their seat assignments so that they would be scattered around the airplane and asking for seat-belt extenders, which could be used as weapons. Valerie Wunder, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said yesterday that the airline has completed its investigation of the incident and has concluded that the flight crew was justified in its actions.

But the imams say the behavior in question was merely quiet prayers before boarding the flight.

Local Muslims of various ethnicities are united in their anger over the imams' treatment. The Metropolitan Airports Commission met last week with local imams who are calling for a prayer room to be created at the airport, where many Somali Muslims are employed.

"They say there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion here," said Mahammed Osman, 35, a vendor at the Karmel Square Somali Mall in Minneapolis. "I'm a Muslim, but I respect other religions. Christian people pray everywhere, like in the Mall of America, and no one says anything."

Many non-Muslim residents agree that Muslims should be able to practice their religion. But many also think that the imams should have been more discreet and sensitive to fears about terrorism.

"It seemed like they were trying to make a point rather than exercise their religious freedom," said Erika Smith, 40, a Minneapolis scientist with General Mills Inc. "They did it in a way that was insensitive to people in the airport."

"I think they staged it," Jerry Church, 43, a computer programmer from Gainesville, Fla., said at the airport on Saturday. "It seems like they wanted to create a ruckus to make a point."

Smith said the airport should provide a place where Muslims can pray.

Ellison, who has created a controversy of his own by pledging to use the Koran for his swearing-in ceremony, has called for a meeting with representatives of US Airways and the airport commission; it is being set up, according to his campaign manager, Dave Colling.

Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan said that, while the commission has no say in a pilot's decision to take someone off a plane, the commission is supportive of Muslims' right to pray in the airport. Officials said they are considering a "meditation room" where people of various faiths can pray, and they will visit a mosque at the request of local imams.

"Muslims fly through this airport all the time, and we don't have incidents of this kind," Hogan said. "I have Muslims asking me where they can pray in the airport, and I direct them to a quiet place and tell them which way is east."

But Sumbal Mahmud, a Minneapolis lawyer and spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Minnesota, thinks local residents still have a lot to learn about Muslims. She is concerned that passengers felt threatened by the imams' alleged repetition of the word "Allah," he said.

"There are words like 'Inshallah' -- God willing -- or 'Mashallah' that come out of my mouth all the time," she said. "How uneducated are people that they can't differentiate prayer from nefarious activity? This really could have been my brother or dad -- anyone with a beard who looks brown or Arab."

Omar Shahin, one of the imams removed from the plane, said they were not praying loudly. He thinks US Airways and the media have been misrepresenting the incident. "The rumor that we were chanting Allah, making anti-American comments -- this never happened," Shahin said. "We teach at universities, we are Americans, we live in this country and love this country. Everybody who knows me knows I am the first one to do fundraising for the victims of 9/11, Katrina, the tsunami. This broke my heart."

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is angry that false rumors were circulated, including that the imams had one-way tickets and paid in cash. The group has called for an investigation and is considering a lawsuit, Awad said.

"We believe these allegations have been aired to justify the actions of US Airways," he said. "We believe it's shameful to smear them after subjecting them to this treatment," he added, referring to the imams.

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