In this age of global terrorism, some cherished American values – like the right to pray, and say what you think – are clashing in unprecedented ways.

Take the controversy over six imams who were removed from a US Airways flight last October, and their recent decision to sue for discrimination – not just the airline and its employees, but also some passengers who complained about their preflight behavior.

At the heart of the controversy are Americans’ concern about terrorism, ignorance about Islam, and constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. In the middle are the airlines, which are charged with the difficult task of sorting out legitimate complaints about unusual behavior from those based on prejudice and fear of people’s appearance – and to do it in a short period when dealing with a particular flight.

The imams’ lawsuit – brought in March at the federal district court in Minnesota – presents a thorny problem. On one hand, if individuals can be sued for making complaints that turn out to be false, it may discourage others from reporting suspicious activity. On the other, some people “still act out of prejudice,” says Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minneapolis.

“What we need to do is to figure out ways to encourage people to make responsible complaints,” she says. “Part of that is training those in the airlines to ask questions to help them sort out the basis for the complaints – whether it was a genuinely suspicious behavior, or is it simply a bias complaint motivated by somebody looking different.”

The October incident sparked outrage among civil libertarians, Muslim-Americans, and others who thought it was un-American for five US citizens and a legal resident, who’d all been thoroughly screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to be suddenly taken off the plane as it sat at the gate because their behavior and Middle Eastern appearance frightened a few passengers. . .

“Of course people should report suspicious activity,” says Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, which has worked closely with the imams. “Nobody who reported any suspicious activity in good faith is a target in this lawsuit. However, making false and defamatory statements is not protected by law, and those are the people we want to depose.”


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