Interview by Amy Goodman on “DEMOCRACY NOW.”
Wednesday, November 29th, 2006
High-Flying Profiling: Six Muslim Leaders Removed in Handcuffs From US Airways Plane After Praying in Airport
Six Muslim leaders were removed from a US Airways flight in handcuffs last week and questioned for several hours after being seen praying together before boarding the plane. After their release, US Airways denied them passage on any of its other flights and refused to help them obtain tickets through another airline. Two of the imams joins us in our firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for congressional hearings about ethnic and religious profiling at airports. The call comes in response to an incident last week in Minneapolis when six Muslim imams were removed from a US Airways flight in handcuffs. They were detained after being seen praying together before boarding the flight.
The imams were in Minneapolis attending a conference sponsored by the North American Imams Federation. The president of the organization, Omar Shahin, was one of the six imams removed from the plane. He joins me here in New York along with Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center of Tempe, AZ, who was also removed from the plane.
We invited a spokesperson from US Airways to join us today but they declined. Andrea Rader, a spokesperson for the airline told the Associated Press that prayer was never the issue. She said the passenger overheard anti-U.S. statements and the men got up and moved around the airplane. She said "We're sorry the imams had a difficult time, but we do think the crews have to make these calls and we think they made the right one."
Imam Omar Shahin, president of the North American Imams Federation. He is one of six imams removed from a US Airways flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Imam Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center of Tempe, AZ. He is one of six imams removed from a US Airways flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
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AMY GOODMAN: The president of the organization, Omar Shahin, was one of the six imams removed from the plane. He joins me here in the studio in New York, along with Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona, who was also removed from the plane. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Thank you.
IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off by telling us what happened that day? You were just coming from this conference in Minneapolis and went to the airport?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Actually, after we finished our conference on Monday, November 20th, and that’s conference for North American Imams Federation, where over 150 imams were there to discuss how to build more bridges with non-Muslims, how to be open-minded imams. And Congressman Keith Ellison was one of the attendees of this conference. We left the conference hotel to the airport, six of us, because we -- you know, we invited all imams from all over. So, we went and got our boarding pass, as usual. And they promoted me to first class, because I’m an elite member.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re an elite member at US Airways.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: With US Airways. Then we went through the security, as normal. Then we went to the waiting area, waiting for our flight. And by then, the sunset time, as Muslims, we pray five times a day, so we decided -- three of us decided to pray that time. Why not six of us? In order to avoid any more attention from people. We picked a very quiet area. We did not bother anybody. We did our prayer in a very quiet lower voice.
Then, after that, we waited ’til they called us according to our zones. I went first. We went to the airplane individually, not together. I sat in my place, first row, first class, which is suspicious also. After that, I found out that they are suspicious of this, too. We noticed that there was a delay in the flight. The airplane is not taking off for almost 45 to one hour.
During that time, I moved from my seat, and I went to Imam Marwan Sadeddin -- he’s a blind guy -- offering him my seat, because he’s a blind old guy. He was very tired. So, he said, “Thank you, Imam Shahin. I don't want -- you, being tired for the last three days, go back to your seat, relax and enjoy it.” I went back to my seat, and I wait. Even the passengers were asking, “What's going on? Why?” I said, “I have no clue.” I did not know that time that we were the problem.
Then, after that, we noticed that the policemen showed up, two of them, to the plane. And they left the plane. Then increasing numbers of policemen showed up and went to the end of the plane, and they start removing the imams one by one from their seats. We did not argue with the policemen. We just complied totally and fully.
AMY GOODMAN: What did the policemen say to you?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: He did not say anything. The minute -- me, personally, the minute I saw the policemen guiding all these imams, taking off all these imams, I know that I am included. So even they did not say anything, I said I’m sure that I am included, and I moved from my seat.
We complied totally with the police, cooperated, fully cooperated, because we don't want to do anything wrong. So they took us to the jet way of the plane, and they asked us to stand there for 45 minutes, don't talk, don’t do this, don't answer phone, don’t do any phone calls. And I asked them, “Please, just give me one minute to say one statement,” because I want to tell them that we notified the FBI in charge and police department of Minneapolis that we have this conference, so traveling together is not a strange thing. But they did not allow me to say this statement. Even one of the policemen, he said, “If you keep asking us this, I am going to arrest you.” Then, I have no other option but to keep silent.
Then, after that, they handcuffed us one by one, and they took us to the police department in the airport. And this is -- up to now, I cannot forget the passengers’ eyes were looking at us when they handcuffed us and took us to the police department.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Imam Shqeirat, you were at back of the plane?
IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were sitting, Imam Shahin, in the first class.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: First class.
AMY GOODMAN: Then there were two imams in the middle of the plane. And then, two of you were at the back. At the back, who was it that complained?
IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: We really did not know that there was a complaint. We just noticed the delay in the flight. It seems I was tired, and I got a nap. I woke up maybe after half an hour. I thought I saw the plane still on the ground. I thought we already arrived to Phoenix, so I thought it must be it was a very comfortable flight. So I asked my neighbor. He said, “No, we did not depart yet.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “I don't know,” because there is -- then the pilot talked to us. And he said, “Excuse us, but we are doing some paperwork, and the computer turned off or down. So, we’re going to be on our way soon.”
After finishing that, I started noticing the police cars arrived, and yeah, two police officers came into the plane, walked from the front to the end without talking to anybody, even without looking at us. Then they stayed a few minutes in the back. Then they went. They left.
After they left, Imam Omar moved from the seat from the front and came to me, said, “Did they talk to you?” I said, “No, nobody talked to me.”
So, after a few minutes, they came back again with more officers. A few of them stood in the front. The rest of them came back and just told us, “You two gentlemen, please step out and walk to the front.” So we did what they told us. And they did this with all imams ’til they took all of us off the plane in front of all the passengers.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about an article that appeared in the Washington Times yesterday. The article was headlined, “How the Imams Terrorized an Airliner.” It begins like this, quote, "Muslim religious leaders removed from a Minnesota flight last week exhibited behavior associated with a security probe by terrorists and were not merely engaged in prayers, according to witnesses, police reports and aviation security officials." The article goes on to quote a series of unnamed sources, and then it states, quote, "Passengers and flight attendants told law enforcement officials the imams switched from their assigned seats to a pattern associated with the September 11th terrorist attacks and also found in probes of US security since the attacks: two in the front row first class, two in the middle of the plane on the exit aisle, and two in the rear of the cabin."
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: That’s completely wrong. I am the only person in first class, and we took -- or we sat in the seats they assigned to us, except one of the imams, he is blind. He asked nicely the gentleman next to Imam Mahmoud Sulaiman to switch his place, because this imam, Marwan Sadeddin, he’s blind, and he needs help. This is the only things happened.
AMY GOODMAN: And you had gone back to ask if he wanted to switch with you?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Wanted to switch with my seat.
AMY GOODMAN: For him.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes, for him.
AMY GOODMAN: Because he was blind. But he said no.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: And they also raised the issue of you asking for seatbelt extensions.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: This is -- to be honest, this hurt me the most. It’s [inaudible] the federal law is a crime nowadays. I asked for an extension. But as you see, I don't need to explain myself more. So I need an extension belt. And supposedly I asked for a not necessary extension, but what’s wrong with that if I can get to the plane twenty of these seatbelts and nobody can ask me why you carry all of these things? But we ask extension belt, because we need it. Me, as well as Imam Marwan Sadeddin. He is a big guy like me. So we need the extension belt. And even the flight attendant, she was helping him in buckling up his extension seatbelt.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we're going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking with Imam Omar Shahin, President of the North American Imams Federation. We’re also speaking with Imam Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center at Tempe, Arizona. We'll be back with them in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to say that we did invite a spokesperson from US Airways to join us today, but they declined. Andrea Rader, a spokesperson for the airline, told the Associated Press that prayer was never the issue. She said the passenger overheard anti-US statements and that the men got up and moved around the airplane. She said, quote, "We’re sorry the imams had a difficult time” -- this is a spokesperson for US Airways -- “We’re sorry the men had a difficult time, but we do think the crews have to make these calls, and we think they made the right one." Again, we are joined by Imam Omar Shahin, President of the North American Imams Federation, and Imam Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona. Your response, Imam Shahin?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: I have no problem. Security is our concern in this country, too, because we are American, and we’re concerned about the security of this country. And me, personally, I urge myself and others, my community, to report any suspicious activity. But what I mean by “suspicious”: legitimate, logic, a suspicious activity, not imagination, not exaggerating, not false statement. All of this report, most of it, imagination, and none of these suspicious things we really did.
AMY GOODMAN: You were questioned for how many hours after? So you’re taken in handcuffs out of the jet way through the airport?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes, ma’am, to the police department in the airport, and they detained us for almost five to six hours.
AMY GOODMAN: And who questioned you?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: I think two security agents, FBI and another agent.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did they ask you about?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: They asked us -- they asked me personally about my life, since I was born up to that time. And I told them, no need for these questions, because we are not criminals. We are not suspicious people. We are very open-minded imams, and you can call the governor. You can call everywhere in Phoenix, anybody in Phoenix, and they know about us. Me, personally, I am the chairperson for the Police Advisory Board in Phoenix.
AMY GOODMAN: For the Police Advisory Board? So, you work with the police in Phoenix?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes, ma’am. Exactly, yeah. That’s what I am doing.
IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: It’s a volunteer position.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you say? A volunteer position?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yeah, it’s a volunteer position. And I did my best to reach out to communities. I did presentations in many areas, in federal prisons, in state prisons. I used to visit all federal and state prisons in Arizona to educate people more and more about Islam, because our policy is seek first to understand, then to be understood. That’s our policy. And we try our best to educate people more and more about Islam. Me, personally, I went with CAIR Arizona twice --
AMY GOODMAN: CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes. Yes, ma’am. Twice to Yuma Air Force Base in order to educate Marines about Islam.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you do on the base? Who did you talk to?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: I just gave a presentation to the Marines.
AMY GOODMAN: How many?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Each time, more than 300 Marines were there.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you talk to them about?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: A presentation about Islam, because more we know about each other, more we get close to each other. We need to build bridges, educate each other about ourselves, about each other. That's our policy. That's what I’m doing. I’m trying hard before and after September 11.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken with the FBI?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: You mean, while they detained us?
AMY GOODMAN: In this kind of reaching out.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Actually, they asked me, while I was the imam and the President of the Islamic Center of Tucson, I received an official letter from the FBI asking me to give a presentation. I went with two brothers, and we gave the FBI agent in Arizona a beautiful presentation about Islam, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: When you were finished being questioned, did US Airways let you fly, let you fly on their plane?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: What happened after they released us, right away I called US Airways trying to book ourselves to the next flight. Unfortunately, she said, you are not allowed to fly with us. I said even --
AMY GOODMAN: After all of this?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: After all of this.
AMY GOODMAN: After they released you?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: After they released me. She said, “Yes.” I said, “Even me?” She said, “Even you.” Then the FBI agent, I noticed that he’s still there. I asked him, “Please, can you call and contact US Airways?” And he did. More than 20 minutes he was trying to convince them that we have no problem with the government. And it’s -- unfortunately, they’re still refusing. He told me, “I’m sorry, Imam Shahin, you have to try again next morning. If not, you just go to any airlines and they will book you.” And that's what happened.
In the morning, I called US Airways. “Please rebook us with a new flight or a next flight to Phoenix.” She said, “Give us a few minutes. I’ll call you back.” Then, after that, they called us back, and she said, “Unfortunately, we cannot honor your request.” Then Imam Ahmad asked her to please help us or book us with another airline through you. She said, “Even that, we cannot honor this request.”
AMY GOODMAN: Imam Shqeirat, you were the person who talked to the US Airways person then on the phone?
IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: Yes, when Imam Omar Shahin contacted them in the morning, they said, “We are going to talk to the manager and get back to you.” He gave them two phone numbers. One of these phone numbers was my cell phone number. So a lady called me, and she said, “I’m sorry, we cannot honor this request to fly you back to Phoenix.” I told her, “If you are not comfortable to carry us, would you please then book us with another airline?” She said, “No, we cannot do that. You go try to do that by your own.”
Then she asked me a question, “Do you want me to start the process of refunding your money?” I told her, “Anyway, we are on our way to the airport, and we’re supposed to meet the press in front of your ticketing counter. So we’re going to talk then.” She said, “Okay.” So we hang up.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, when you came back across the country on Monday into Reagan Airport, National Airport, in Washington, D.C., you held a pray-in?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes. We did an interfaith press conference and asked rabbi and rev to join us. And we really appreciate what they did. And we hold our display, a prayer, so everybody can see what we are doing. We just pray and ask the God His guidance. We are not doing anything suspicious.
AMY GOODMAN: You were with Jewish and Christian clergy?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes. It’s interfaith press conference.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for now?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Up to now, I am just calling for US Airways to stop smearing our image, because they keep -- day after day, they keep saying many false statements about us. They did a big mistake in the beginning, when they discriminate us. And they have to stop right there, because up to now, every day I hear another thing. They smear our image in front of the public. And that's what hurts me also the most. So what I’m asking them now is to stop smearing our image. Stop doing this. Stop accusing us.
AMY GOODMAN: I was at the CAIR conference, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington, D.C., when your conference was taking place in Minneapolis. Keith Ellison was supposed to come to the Washington conference, but he was double booked. He was at your conference. He's the first congressman to be elected in this country who is Muslim.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes, ma’am. Yes, we invited him, actually, three weeks before our conference. And he honored this invitation and he came. He joined our conference. He spoke to the imams for more than two hours. And we really appreciate what he did.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things they raised at the conference was how Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressmember elected to Congress, was treated on the Glenn Beck show on CNN. And I wanted to play an excerpt of that and get your response to it. We played it a few days ago, when we had Glenn Beck asking him if he could prove that he was not working with the enemy, Keith Ellison. Your response to that?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: To be honest with you, it's a strange thing to accuse this gentleman with these things, working with the enemy. If they consider us as an enemy, this is another story. But we are Americans. We live in this country, and we love this country. And our loyalty, to this country. We work very hard to educate people about our faith. And he is -- he was very nice with the imams. These are the leaders. If they consider us as an enemy, this is a real problem. We are not the enemy of anybody.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. We've been speaking with two of the six imams who were taken off the US Airways flight in Minneapolis, after having prayed in the airport before they got on the flight. Imam Omar Shahin, President of the North American Imams Federation, and Imam Ahmad Shqeirat who is the imam at Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona. And a final question to you is, any advice you have to people who are flying, to Muslims who are flying right now?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: My advice to the American, in general, seek first to understand, then to be understood. For the Muslim community, what I can say, that just we need to work hard and hard, more and more and more, to educate people.
AMY GOODMAN: The Homeland Security Department's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties says it’s investigating what happened at US Airways. Have they contacted either of you?
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Actually, CAIR is taking care of our case legal-wise. So if they contact us through CAIR, I’m not aware of that. But CAIR, Mr. Nihad Awad, is taking care of this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Thank you.