Omar Shahin, one of six imams removed from a flight last week, says he has traveled the country since the September 11 attacks to promote understanding of the Muslim religion, but he once worked for a group linked to terrorist financing. He insists that the terrorists who leveled the World Trade Center were not Muslims.
Mr. Shahin says he cut ties to KindHearts after the Treasury Department began investigating the group, that "true Muslims" do not murder and were not responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
"If they claim they are Muslim, they are wrong," Mr. Shahin said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Despite what religion they claim, even if they are all Arabs, to say they are Muslims is wrong, completely wrong.
"We have been asked by God and by the prophet Muhammad to respect all human life. The Koran is very clear, to save one life he saves all human life, and whoever kills one person, he kills all humankind, and that is what Islam is all about."
Mr. Shahin was a representative and fundraiser for KindHearts, which the Treasury Department says "coordinated with Hamas leaders and made contributions to Hamas-affiliated organizations," in a Feb. 19 statement after freezing the groups' assets.
KindHearts was established by Khaled Smaili, an official with the Global Relief Foundation, after the government froze the al Qaeda-affiliated foundation's assets, according to the Treasury Department.
"When they shut down, I had no clue what they were doing," Mr. Shahin said. "I made sure they are licensed as an American organization with the federal government and states, and that's all I did, I was just a fundraiser and representative.
"I stopped and have no relations with anyone, anymore, because they are under investigation."
Mr. Shahin said that KindHearts donated money, through his efforts, to the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia, to Southerners hit by Hurricane Katrina, and to the Red Cross in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Shahin lives in Phoenix and is the president of the North American Imam Federation, which serves the spiritual and tangible needs of Muslim scholars, helps them improve their relationship with the community, and encourages Muslims to observe the Islamic acts of worship.
He has a doctorate in Islamic law and is a professor at the Graduate Theological Foundation. He also received degrees in Islamic study from universities in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, and holds a diploma in Koranic recitation from the University of Jordan.
He is a native of Jordan and is a naturalized American citizen.
Mr. Shahin is the spokesman for the imams who attended his federation's conference last week in Minnesota and were evicted from US Airways Flight 300 because of suspicious behavior.
The imams dispute the account of seven witnesses, including two law-enforcement officers, that the imams shouted hostile slogans and took unassigned seats in a pattern used by terrorists. Mr. Shahin calls the reports "exaggerations" and "false statements."
"I did everything normal, I did not do anything that is not normal in my mind." He said he and his colleagues were removed from the plane because three of the men said prayers in the concourse.
Mr. Shahin said they did not orchestrate the event to create a lawsuit or make a public issue of profiling Muslim passengers.
"We love US Airways, and we want to fly with them," Mr. Shahin said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations will pursue a lawsuit on the imams' behalf, Mr. Shahin said.
Mr. Shahin says they were not led off the plane in handcuffs, as reported, nor were they kept in handcuffs during their five-hour detention, and they were not harassed by dogs.
Witnesses and aviation-security officials say security concerns arose because of the seating arrangement which resembled a controlled pattern used by the September 11 hijackers -- two in front, two in the middle, two in the rear of the plane. Law-enforcement officials say the men were not in their assigned seats.
The request by three passengers, including Mr. Shahin, for seat-belt extensions, also concerned flight attendants. "That was a dead giveaway," one federal air marshal said yesterday. Flight crews are cautioned about giving out seat-belt extenders because you can turn it into a weapon very easily. You swing that belt buckle, and you can potentially kill someone."
Mr. Shahin says that after they were questioned and released, US Airways declined to sell them another plane ticket, even after an FBI agent intervened at the imam's request. "I told him, 'Please sir, to call them.' And he did and talked for more than 20 minutes. He was trying to tell them we have no problem with the government and we can fly with anybody, but they still refused. He told me, 'I'm sorry I did my best.' I really appreciated it."
Paul McCabe, FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, says no such call took place on behalf of the men. "That never happened," Mr. McCabe said.