American Muslims making a religious pilgrimage to Mecca are being encouraged to file civil rights complaints if they feel discriminated against by airlines.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), citing what it called the "airport profiling" of six imams removed from a recent flight, yesterday said Muslims traveling this month to the holy site in Saudi Arabia need to be aware of their rights.
"Given the increase in the number of complaints CAIR has received alleging airport profiling of American Muslims, we believe it is important that all those taking part in this year's hajj be aware of their legal and civil rights," said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR spokesman.
The group has established a toll-free hot line (800/784-7526) for victims of "flying while Muslim," as Muslims have begun departing for the weeklong hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation to visit the holy city of Mecca, which this year begins Dec. 29.
But M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix physician and chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), said the announcement by CAIR "continues the tired stoking of the flames of victimization."
"They are unfortunately exploiting, for purely political reasons, what should be a sacred and purely spiritual story of our faith's annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca," Dr. Jasser said.
"We need new leadership and organizations which use their passions and the bandwidth of the media to lead the ideological fight against radical and political Islam rather than this tired pre-emption of supposed discrimination."
CAIR is representing the six imams removed from a US Airways flight last month and has asked for a meeting with the airline to seek an out-of-court settlement. It maintains that police and witness reports detailing the imams unusual behavior before their removal last month were ethnically and/or religiously motivated.
The imams say they were praying and did not, as the reports say, change seats and make remarks critical of President Bush and the Iraq war.
Pilots and air marshals called the incident a "PC probe" to intimidate passengers and crew from reporting suspicious behavior by Muslim passengers and are fearful the incident will set off a domino effect of lawsuits.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, thinks this is a ploy to extort money from the airlines.
"I think CAIR is soliciting complaints, and if they don't get it, they will make it up," said Miss Burlingame, who is also a director for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.
"People complain about everything, including bad weather, so, the angry Muslim activists will be loaded for bear," Miss Burlingame said.
A guide issued by CAIR advises Muslims that "as an airline passenger, you are entitled to courteous, respectful and non-stigmatizing treatment by airline and security personnel."
"You have the right to complain about treatment that you believe is discriminatory," the guide says.
Those treated in a discriminatory manner are advised by CAIR to "ask for the names and ID numbers of all persons involved in the incident. Be sure to write this information down."
The Washington Times obtained police and witness reports just days after the incident involving the imams, and reported on Nov. 28 that the men did not sit in their assigned seats, asked for seat-belt extensions they did not need, and spoke in Arabic among themselves.
Federal air marshals and pilots were also asked by The Washington Times to examine the imams' seating arrangement, and reported that it resembled a pattern used by the September 11 hijackers.
"That behavior has been identified as a terrorist probe in the airline industry," one pilot said.
One airline official who asked to remain anonymous called the CAIR threats about ethnic profiling "much ado about a practice that does not exist in any major airline."
"You do wonder what the ultimate aim is here; to eliminate a discriminatory practice that does not exist, or is there some other agenda afoot," the official said.