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Muslim men sue Alaska Airlines for removal from flight over Arabic texts

Two Black Muslim men are suing the airline for discrimination

An Alaska Airlines 737 comes in for landing at Portland International Airport in 2018. (DaveAlan/Getty Images/iStock)

Two Black Muslim men have sued Alaska Airlines for discrimination after they said the airline removed them from a flight following a fellow passenger’s complaint over text messages in Arabic and would not allow them to travel together on rebooked flights.

Attorneys with the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which first publicized the incident in December 2020, filed the suit in federal court on Aug. 2. The group said in a statement that the lawsuit claims a federal and state violation of the men’s civil rights as paying passengers on the flight.

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The situation unfolded on Feb. 17, 2020, when Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, both U.S. citizens born in Sudan, were in first class waiting to fly from Seattle to San Francisco. The men, colleagues in a medical transport business, were planning to buy work vehicles and drive them back to Washington state, where they both lived.

As they waited to take off, the complaint says, they had conversations in Arabic, and Dirar, now 62, messaged a friend in a conversation that included emoji and Arabic text. A passenger who sat next to Dirar was alarmed by the texts, grabbed his bag and told the flight attendant he was not going to stay on the plane.

Calling the passenger’s complaint “unsubstantiated and disproven,” the lawsuit says airline employees chose to “self-servingly discriminate against [the men] based upon their perceived religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienage and national origin by using Plaintiffs as scapegoats in an admittedly unjustified and unnecessary display of security theater.”

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According to the suit, an Alaska Airlines manager told Dirar and Elamin to get off the plane. Once they complied, he explained that one of them had been flagged for sending “improper” text messages. Employees humiliated them in front of fellow passengers, the suit says, forced them to undergo more security measures even after telling police the men posed no threat and would not let them fly together on rebooked flights.

Port of Seattle police said in a report that the captain ordered the lavatory tanks to be emptied after Elamin, now 47, used the bathroom, and said the airline requested a police dog to screen luggage for explosives.

Several of those measures took place even after Dirar offered his phone to the airline manager, who examined and translated the text messages in question and deemed them to be “completely innocuous,” according to the complaint.

According to the police report, part of the text chain that dated back to 2018, included the numbers “911.” The men’s attorney said that was a joke from Dirar’s friend, who said that was his wife’s phone number because her calls needed to be “answered urgently and taken seriously.” An exchange on the day of the flight included a rocket emoji in response to positive comments about photos. The police report said that emoji — which Dirar deleted — was intended to describe a picture positively as “the bomb.”

“Dirar said there was no ill will or intention,” the police report said.

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The police report said a manager reported that the situation was a misunderstanding with “no threat of any kind” and that police were no longer needed. That same manager later said passengers were being taken off the plane and screened again “to show them that Alaska Airlines was concerned about their security and took the incident seriously.”

The men said they saw some of the other passengers who had to be rescreened “staring at them and appearing visibly agitated and scared, with some passengers cursing and expressing anger,” the suit says. Everyone except Dirar and Elamin were allowed back on.

In a statement, the airline said it “strictly prohibits discrimination” and takes such complaints seriously.

“Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe every day, and that includes complying with federal regulations on investigating any passenger safety reports,” the statement said. “Since this case remains pending litigation, we’re unable to share any further comment or details at this time.”

The suit asks for unspecified monetary damages and requests that the airline be forced to provide racial and religious sensitivity training to employees, and establish culturally sensitive protocols and procedures when it comes to handling passenger complaints; and that the company be prohibited from discrimination against passengers and customers based on religion, race, color or other traits.

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Luis Segura, a civil rights attorney with the council, said in an email that earlier attempts to contact the airline had not resulted in any response despite the promise of an internal investigation.

“Alaska Airlines’ discrimination of these men not only interrupted their business trip, but also caused them serious long-lasting emotional distress and immense pressure to avoid the attention of others and conduct themselves in ways which conceal their ethnic and religious identities when flying,” the council said in its statement.

In the statement, Dirar said he would pursue the legal process because he doesn’t want other passengers to go through the same experience.

“When we traveled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people,” he said. “I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim.”

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