Air marshals, pilots and security officials yesterday expressed concern that airline passengers and crews will be reluctant to report suspicious behavior aboard for fear of being called “racists,” after several Muslim imams made that charge in a press conference Monday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Six imams, or Muslim holy men, accused a US Airways flight crew of inappropriately evicting them from a flight last week in Minneapolis after several passengers said the imams tried to intimidate them by loudly praying and moving around the airplane. The imams urged Congress to enact laws to prohibit ethnic and religious “profiling.”
Federal air marshals and others yesterday urged passengers to remain vigilant to threats.
“The crew and passengers act as our additional eyes and ears on every flight,” said a federal air marshal in Las Vegas, who asked that his name not be used. “If [crew and passengers] are afraid of reporting suspicious individuals out of fear of being labeled a racist or bigot, then terrorists will certainly use those fears to their advantage in future aviation attacks.”
But Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Muslims “have to walk around on eggshells in public just because we don’t want to be misconstrued as suspicious. You have to strike a balance between legitimate fears which people may have, but not allow passengers to have so much discretion that they can trigger a process that would violate a traveler’s basic civil rights.”
“Because one person misunderstood the actions of other law-abiding citizens, they were able to trigger a very long and daunting process for other travelers that were pulled off the plane in handcuffs and detained for many hours before they were cleared.”
The imams say they were removed from the Phoenix-bound flight because they were praying quietly in the concourse. They had been in Minnesota for a conference sponsored by the North American Imams Federation.
But other passengers told police and aviation security officials a different version of the incident. They said suspicious behavior of the imams led to their eviction from the flight. The imams, they said, tested the forbearance of the passengers and flight crew in what the air marshal called a “[political correctness] probe.”
“The political correctness needs to be left at the boarding gate,” the marshal said. “Instilling politically correct fears into the minds of airline passengers is nothing less than psychological terrorism.”
The passengers and flight crew said the imams prayed loudly before boarding; switched seating assignments to a configuration used by terrorists in previous incidents; asked for seat-belt extensions, which could be used as weapons; and shouted hostile slogans about al Qaeda and the war in Iraq.
Flight attendants said three of the six men, who did not appear to be overweight, asked for the seat-belt extensions, which include heavy metal buckles, and then threw them to the floor under their seats.
Robert MacLean, a former federal air marshal, expressed the fear yesterday that the situation “will make crews and passengers in the future second-guess reporting these events, thus compromising the aircraft’s security out of fear of being labeled a dogmatist or a bigot, or being sued.”
Flight attendants said they were concerned that the way the imams took seats that were not assigned to them — two seats in the front row of first class, exit seats in the middle of the plane and two seats in the rear — resembled the pattern used by September 11 hijackers, giving them control of the exits.
A Minneapolis police officer and a federal air marshal who were called to the plane after the imams refused to leave the plane for questioning said “the seating configuration, the request for seat-belt extensions, the prior praying and utterances about Allah and the United States in the gate area … was suspicious.”
One pilot for a competing airline said the incident would have a chilling effect on the flight crews.
“The flight crew may be a little more gun-shy about approaching people, they may have a higher standard for the next few weeks for screening unusual behavior. I hope that’s not the case, because I do think US Airways did the proper thing.”
Andrea Rader, spokeswoman for US Airways, said its employees “are going to do what is appropriate” to ensure that airplanes are safe and will not be dissuaded by uproar over last week’s incident.
“I don’t think people will be less vigilant as a result of this, and I think that’s appropriate. There is a balance, and I think we will continue to achieve that. Our crews and people on the airplanes are going to watch for behavior that raises concerns.”
Many airports offer private rooms for prayer, but CAIR’s Miss Ahmed said travelers required to arrive at airports two hours in advance to go through security inspections are too exhausted and must pray at the gate.
“It’s convenient to check in then get to the gate and pray there,” she said.