MPAC Appalled by Treatment of US Imams

November 22, 2006

Following the wrongful removal of six American imams (Muslim prayer leaders) in Minnesota on Monday, the Muslim Public Affairs Council today requested a meeting with Department of Treasury Secretary Mary Peters and called for a review by the DOT's Office of Civil Rights on US Airways' possible violation of the passengers' civil rights because of their religious and ethnic background.

The men were returning home from Minneapolis after a three-day North American Imams Federation (NAIF) Conference. Among the group was NAIF President Omar Shahin, an American citizen and Imam in Arizona for the last 30 years, who told MPAC yesterday that "this was humiliating, and the worst moment of my life." Shahin, who is a U.S. Airways frequent flier who flew first class, has been an active member of the local police task force and has been engaged member of the civic community in Arizona.

Before boarding the flight, three of the six men went to a corner at the gate to perform obligatory prayers, one of the five pillars of Islam and a Constitutionally protected right. After boarding the plane, two of the men requested seatbelt extensions. To request seatbelt extensions is not only a routine practice, but is intended to ensure the comfort of passengers.

In the letter to Secretary Peters, MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati writes:

"While we are all obligated to do our utmost in reporting criminal activity to the authorities, we are also concerned that misplaced fear and suspicion will gridlock our justice system if we cannot distinguish normal behavior from criminal behavior.... We believe the actions of US Airways personnel should be thoroughly investigated and that corrective measures should be taken to remind the airlines of their obligation to serve all Americans and not to conduct profiling based on religious, ethnic or racial backgrounds."

Shahin also told MPAC that he and his five colleagues, including a blind man, were made to line up 10 feet apart in the airport terminal before hundreds of others passengers waiting for other flights. They were then handcuffed and led to separate rooms where they were detained for nearly three hours. Shahin said an FBI agent then arrived and spoke to him for less than 20 minutes before he apologize for the "misunderstanding" and said he was free to go. The other five imams were similarly released without charge. The imams denied that they did or said anything that could be considered threatening.

"To practice your faith and pray is a crime in America?" Shahin said.

Following their ordeal, they were quickly told by US Airways that the airline would not re-book their flight or allow them to fly home on any other US Airways flight, despite the intervention of the FBI agent who assured the representative that the men had done nothing wrong. After much humiliation, the men returned home the next day on a Northwest Airlines Flight.

In Phoenix, Shahin and his colleagues were met warmly by a representative of the city's Chief of Police and the Sheriff's Department, with whom they work with regularly on ensuring the safety and security of their city.

MPAC is committed to working to advance effective and lawful policies which also respect the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans. Founded in 1988, MPAC is a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives.

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