Monday, December 11, 2006

A group of Muslim imams is seeking an out-of-court settlement with US Airways, saying they should not have been removed from a Minnesota-to-Phoenix flight last month and were not behaving suspiciously.

Five of the six Islamic religious leaders have retained the Council on American-Islamic Relations for legal representation and are seeking a “mutually agreeable” resolution, said Nihad Awad, CAIR executive director.

US Airways scheduled a meeting with the imams on Dec. 4 to discuss the incident, but the men canceled it and hired the activist group to act as legal counsel.

“With the hopes of reaching an amicable resolution to this matter, we would like to take this opportunity to ask for a formal meeting with US Airways executives and legal counsel,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR’s national legal director, in a letter to the airline.

The imams represented by CAIR include Omar Shahin, Didmar Faja, Ahmad Shqeirat, Marwan Sadeddin and Mohamed Ibrahim.

Mahmoud Sulaiman of New Mexico is the only imam not included as a plaintiff.

Mr. Sulaiman is the passenger who asked another passenger to switch seats with him to accommodate a blind imam and was one of three imams who asked for a seat-belt extension even though the police report cites his weight at 170 pounds.

The Washington Times first reported on Nov. 28 that the imams were not in their assigned seats, but seated in a formation similar to the September 11 hijackers and controlled the exits to the plane. The men also requested seat-belt extensions but did not appear to need them, and engaged in conversations critical of the United States, according to police reports and eyewitness statements.

The imams and CAIR officials maintain that press reports as well as Internet sites and blogs have circulated charges they say misrepresent the facts of the Nov. 20 incident.

“Unfortunately, the false claims and smears used against these religious leaders only serve to cloud the real issue involved, that of how national security can be maintained while preserving constitutionally protected freedoms and respect for religious diversity,” said Mr. Awad.

CAIR says the men were handcuffed for several hours and is also demanding hearings on religious and ethnic profiling at airports.

Mr. Shahin told The Washington Times he was only handcuffed for “10 or 15 minutes” and that the imams were not led off the plane in handcuffs.

Federal air marshals and pilots called the imams’ actions a probe of airport security as well as a probe of the politically correct mentality of air passengers.

The Washington Times reported in 2004 that flight crews and passengers were experiencing a number of terrorist probes, most notably Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles in June 2004, during which 14 Syrian men posing as musicians may have practiced a dry run.

Also in July 2004, a passenger from Syria was taken into custody at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport while carrying anti-American materials and a note suggesting he intended to commit suicide.

A pilot reported that he watched a man of Middle Eastern descent at the Minneapolis airport using binoculars to get airplane tail numbers and writing the numbers in a notebook to correspond with flight numbers.

An airline spokeswoman says they have received the request from CAIR for a meeting, as well as a meeting request from Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, the first Muslim elected to Congress, but no date has been set.

“As far as we are concerned, we are done, and we will continue to back the crew, but we do want to reach out to the passengers,” said spokeswoman Andrea Rader.

Muslims held a pray-in recently at the Minneapolis airport and called for a prayer room to accommodate their rigorous prayer schedule.

“Actually, the topic of a prayer room never came up in our meeting,” said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan. “They mentioned it to the press before the meeting.”

The airport already has two areas where anyone of any faith can pray — a privately operated Community Counseling Center operated by a minister who encourages people of all faiths to pray in his facility and another area on the mezzanine level.

“Our intent at present is simply to increase public awareness of those facilities through signage and other outreach activities,” Mr. Hogan said.

“If over time we find we need more space to accommodate people’s needs, we would consider looking at other alternatives. In any case, the space would be for people of all faiths — or none, for that matter — and not dedicated to the practice of a particular belief system,” he said.

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