Middle East Forum
by M. Zuhdi Jasser Middle East Quarterly Winter 2008
On November 20, 2006, airline officials in Minneapolis removed six imams from U.S. Airways flight 300 to Phoenix after their behavior raised the suspicion of fellow travelers. The imams decried the incident as racist and evidence of discrimination. On March 12, 2007, they filed suit against the airline, airport, and fellow passengers.
Some of the imams' claims are exaggerated; many are false. In reality, the incident was a tactical move to support the imams' claim to leadership over the American Muslim community. Indeed, the "flying imams" case, Ahmed Shqeirat et al. vs. U.S. Airways, appears to mark just the latest front in the war between Islamists and mainstream, pluralistic American Muslims.
Background The airport episode appeared pre-planned, the American equivalent of the manufactured Danish cartoon controversy, in which Danish Islamists, who hoped to benefit from polarization, exaggerated victimization and sought a pretext for crisis. The six imams, five of whom hailed from the Phoenix area, were returning from a North American Imams Federation conference. Three drew attention to themselves when they conducted prayers at the departure gate rather than in the airport chapel or quietly in their seats. However, they drew no response. On the plane, however, they aroused passenger suspicion with loud Arabic conversations, requests for apparently unnecessary seat-belt extenders—which can be used as weapons—and a post-boarding seating switch. Other passengers expressed their worries to the crew, who had them removed. After this incident, Omar Shahin, president of the North American Imams Federation and a prominent Phoenix imam, told the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR, an Islamist advocacy group) and its attorneys, "Security at the airport isn't our problem; it's their problem."
On March 12, 2007, the imams, CAIR, and attorney Omar Mohammedi, a former president of CAIR's New York chapter, filed suit not only against the airline and the Minneapolis Metropolitan Airports Commission but also against the anonymous "John Doe" passengers who alerted the crew to the imams' suspicious behavior.
The involvement of CAIR, an organization that has received significant Saudi financing, injected impressive machinery and resources into the case. Omar Shahin explained, "Since minute one of this incident, I contacted [CAIR communications director] Ibrahim Hooper and [CAIR executive director] Brother Nihad Awad, and we arranged everything … Everything's being coordinated with CAIR." The group underwrote the cost of any litigation.
CAIR used its national network of imams and press connections to draw attention to the case. Tactically, though, the decision to litigate against ordinary passengers was a misstep. It drew critical commentary from the mainstream press. The Arizona Republic dubbed it "intimidation by lawsuit," and many individuals and organizations, including our own American Islamic Forum for Democracy, offered assistance to the passengers forced into court. While Mohammedi amended his suit to target only John Does whom he deemed "racist" or who had made false accusations, the discovery process would still require suspect passengers to retain counsel.
Congress stepped in and, in late July, passed legislation protecting passengers from similar future lawsuits. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty then filed an amicus brief with the court on August 1, 2007, asking the court to remove the John Does from the suit and denouncing the imams' "attempt to hijack the court as legal terrorism." Under this barrage of criticism, the imams dropped their lawsuit against the passengers on August 23, 2007, although they are proceeding with the rest of their suit against the airline, its employees, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.