Imams at the Airport

Six Imams walk into a Terminal…and then they stay right there. They were deplaned from a US Airways flight after bring found suspicious. CAIR is, rightfully, asking for investigation.

I received an email from our teacher, Naim Sahib with an oped he wrote to the Chicago Tribune. With his non-explicit-permission, I am reprinting it below the fold.

C. M. Naim

Professor Emeritus, SALC

University of Chicago

    Imams at the Airport

On Monday evening (November 20), at the Minneapolis airport, six Muslim men were taken in handcuffs off their US Air flight to Phoenix, detained and interrogated by the FBI for several hours, and then released. They could return to their homes in Phoenix only some twenty hours later—courtesy of Northwest Airlines, since the US Air again refused to accommodate them. Their detention, it was reported, was in response to complaints by airline staff and other travelers, who accused them of ‘unsettling’ and ‘suspicious’ behavior, including ‘prayers at the gate.’

The note passed on by a passenger to a flight attendant has been published in the newspapers; it reads: ‘6 suspicious Arabic men on plane, spaced out in their seats. All were together, saying “…Allah … Allah”, cursing US involvement w/Saddam before flight. 1 in front exit now, another in first row 1st class, another in 8D, another in 22 D, two in 25 E&F.’ For that observant traveler, the main suspicious act was the men’s being obviously being together at the gate but then spacing themselves out inside the plane.

I watched the news on the ABC’s evening program on Tuesday, and saw six men who looked quite ordinary except that they were all slightly overweight. Ironically, one perceptive flight attendant had reportedly become suspicious because some of the men asked for seat-belt extensions while she ‘did not see they actually needed them.’

In response to the incident, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the NAACP have called for Congressional hearings on racial profiling, and also an investigation by the Justice Department and the Transportation Security Administration. These are fair and reasonable demands, and they might even get favorable responses. Quite likely, the aggrieved individuals will receive an apology and perhaps even some compensation. But not much improvement can be expected to come about in the existing state of suspicion, misunderstanding, and misbehavior. That will require a lot more effort on the part of the TV channels, the non-Muslim public, and the Muslims themselves.

I single out the TV, because it desperately must show pictures even when they are not relevant. Consequently, it frequently turns into singularly emblematic what is essentially innocuous. Not too long ago, the sight of a man or woman genuflecting and prostrating in prayer in a corner of an airport lounge would have aroused only curiosity, leading perhaps even to a friendly and useful exchange between a Muslim and a non-Muslim about different ways of praying. But, having seen countless TV reports in which Muslims are shown praying only when the reporter talks about terrorists, the same non-Muslim can well be expected to respond differently. Imagine, how people would have felt about Catholicism some years ago, if every TV report on IRA bombings in England had also included a few seconds of a Mass in progress. Imagine also the uproar of condemnation it would have caused. Presently, no TV report on any so-called Muslim country, e.g. Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, can now be without a bit where the Muslim call to prayers is sounded. No one in the industry objects to it. Imagine, on the other hand, the reaction if any report on Israel’s actions in Gaza also showed some Jews praying in a synagogue, or if church bells were heard to chime in the background while the reporter talked about Abu Ghraib.

I’m not an observant Muslim at all, and yet I catch myself saying, ‘Allah,’ several times during the day. I do so when I feel tired getting out of the bed, or when I stretch myself sitting before the computer. I also often say, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ as an exclamation of surprise over something good. Much the same is habitual to any number of Muslims, who invoke God’s name to convey humility, draw solace, gain patience, find strength, express gratitude, praise excellence, and much, much more. Unfortunately, so do also Muslim suicide bombers, sectarian killers, and assorted fanatics, as they go about doing their ungodly work. Not because they are devout Muslims—as the TV pictures would have you believe—but either out of a multi-faceted cultural habit or as an artful wish on the part of some to appear more devout than others. An example of the latter occurred just before Operation Desert Storm, when Saddam Husain wrote ‘Allahu Akbar’ on Iraq’s flag in order to appear as devout a Muslim as the Saudis, who, in turn, display their devoutness by having the entire Muslim confession of faith on their flag.

Much though it may be desired by some, neither I nor countless other people can suddenly stop behaving in public spaces the way it comes natural to us. We may try, for our own sake, but we are bound to fail fairly often, and should be allowed to expect some understanding from those around us. The task before the US Air personnel at the airport was to assuage the fears of some of the passengers. They did so by removing the six Muslims, but they could have achieved the same goal differently had they been better informed, and also more willing to accommodate those who didn’t look like them.

A man in the ABC report was shown asking why the Muslims couldn’t behave like him? He too always ‘prayed’ before boarding a plane, but did so quietly and by himself. His question points to another misunderstanding. Most Muslims do in fact pray silently and separately by themselves when they seek God’s protection during a journey or any other activity. The Muslims who prayed together in the boarding lounge, however, were not praying for protection during the flight as that man concluded; they were praying as a group to fulfill one of their daily religious obligations—to pray five times at fixed hours of the day, and to do so in a group if at all possible.

And that leads me to ask a different set of questions, which I address to the Muslims involved in the incident. The news reports described them as Imams or religious leaders, and therefore I can expect them to be well informed at least on religious matters. I ask them: why did you pray at the gate, instead of going to the prayer room which is available at most major airports, and why did you not just wait to pray until after you had reached Phoenix? Islam as a religion allows much leeway in such matters. ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ says a well-known verse in the Koran. There are indeed five obligatory daily prayers, but if a Muslim misses one, or even many, he is allowed to make up for the missed prayers later. No shame or sin attaches to that person. Shouldn’t you have shown better sense—and also a better feel for what is good for all—and not prayed until later in the privacy of your mosque? Did you, dear imams, explain to the people near you at the gate what you intended to do, and did you get their assurance that your praying will not bother them? Did you stop to think that just as you had obligations to God, you also had obligations—ordained by God—to other human beings, particularly so in these terrible times of suspicion and fear?

To my mind, the incident at the Minneapolis airport grew as much out of the wrongful and self-righteous attitude of the Imams, who could have acted as sensible and sensitive human beings while remaining devoutly Muslim, as out of the xenophobic paranoia of some passengers and the racist bias of the airline personnel. However, to say that is not to deny that passengers with ‚ÄòMuslim names‚Äô and/or ‚ÄòArab/Muslim looks‚Äô have been targets of racial profiling and worst suspicions since 9/11. The situation is not likely to change soon; in fact, things may get worse when a ‘Who lost Iraq?’ syndrome sets in. And that makes it the more imperative for American Muslims to be careful in choosing the fights they must fight in the public space and the concessions they must make there.

(November 23, 2006)

8 Replies to “Imams at the Airport”

  1. “When a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution…..”

    Here is the latest example of great law enforcement

    “Boyd is facing the possibility of life in prison if he is convicted. Actually, he should be counting his lucky stars. If they had treated him as an enemy combatant rather than as a criminal defendant, which the feds have had the option of doing under U.S. law since 9/11, they could have sent battle-tested U.S. troops from Ft. Bragg into Raleigh to attack Boyd’s house, take him into custody, whisk him away to a secret military detention center, torture him, and keep him incarcerated for the rest of his life.

    Better yet, they could have sent a CIA hit squad to assassinate him, as they did in Yemen, thereby sparing all the hassle and expense of a trial and risking the possibility of an acquittal. Well, on second thought, the risk of an acquittal is no big deal because even if Boyd were to be acquitted, the Constitution’s bar against double jeopardy no longer prevents the military from taking him into custody as an enemy combatant.”

  2. Latest on Imams

    “In a pretrial motion, lawyers for an FBI agent and airport police argued that a recent law that gave private citizens more immunity for reporting suspicious actions at airports should also cover law enforcement officers.

    U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled that there was no indication that Congress intended to do that.

    ‘When a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility…no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause.'”

  3. Obviously, this is not the first case where innocent passengers have been harassed. Another muslim passenger was detained after flight because the other passengers complained he was behaving in a strange manner. He was actually saying his prayers while seated.

    They’ve been many other cases of muslims being harassed. But one has to admit that this ridiculous new Air Travel policy being enforced by the DHS, is not limited to muslims. A very prominent, (Jewish) architect from England, was kicked off a flight for possessing a “TAN”. I kid you not, this is absolutely true. Apparently the gentleman looked to Middle-Eastern for the flight crew.

    The most ridiculous abuse of this law and the most laughable case of paranoia by the passengers and air crew is highlighted in the most recent case. An American (caucasian) couple were arrested after disembarking the plane because the were snogging on a plane. That’s right! The couple were found kissing and caressing each other which made the passengers and the crew extremely nervous. The couple could now actually face up to 15 years in jail (as reported by the press).

    Insanity prevails.

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