You may not have heard, but six American Muslim imams (prayer leaders) are suing US Airways, claiming they were improperly barred from re-boarding a flight after fellow passengers reported that they were engaging in suspicious activity – prayer.

Among those supporting the imams is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose only New England chapter is based in New London.

The suit brings back memories for me, first of a night flight I took from the Republic of Panama to Miami around 1970, when hijackings to Cuba were on everyone’s mind.

Shortly after the flight took off, a Spanish-speaking man pulled out a large crucifix and began pacing up and down the aisle, pausing to make the sign of the cross over each passenger. I decided that he must have a bomb in his suitcase, and was crazy enough to think he could send all the innocents to heaven.

I called the stewardess, as flight attendants were called then. He wasn’t nuts, she said, just scared of flying. Best not to agitate him further, but just let him do his thing.

He never let up. When the plane finally touched down, he packed up his crucifix, and life went on.

That was then.

Two years ago this spring, I traveled to Israel and the West Bank with a group from the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. When we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, only Imran Ahmed, who was born in Bangladesh, was pulled aside for questioning. Ahmed and his teenage son, Tashrik, were the sole Muslims.

Ann Coulter would have been pleased. The right-wing commentator once said airports should have separate lines for men and boys whose skin tone suggests they are from the Middle East.

Ahmed emerged unflustered after about 15 minutes. He said security had questioned him about a passport stamp from Egypt, where his daughter was in college. He joked that the next time he flew into Cairo, he’d probably be asked what he was doing in Israel.

“I can’t win,” said Ahmed, a past president of the Islamic Center of New London.
It was no joking matter when we got to the airport for the trip home. Ahmed was again singled out, this time taken to a private room for questioning.

An hour passed, and boarding time drew near.

Old Lyme minister David Good didn’t want a reprise of his 2003 trip to Israel, when Egyptian-born Hassan Fouda was detained prior to return and they didn’t realize he was missing until after the plane took off. Good told security that if Ahmed missed the flight, 22 others would as well.
Whether due to solidarity or serendipity, he was sprung with minutes to spare.

Ahmed said security guards were polite, but never explained why he was being detained. Some in our group saw it as pure harassment. I saw it as the irrational fallout of rational fear.

Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for CAIR, wrote this week in USA Today: “The fact that we have to coin the new phrase ‘flying while Muslim’ is indicative of the unraveling of our national social fabric.”

But I see a silver lining here. American Muslims are standing up, where a few years ago they might have been too afraid.

The six imams are suing US Airways for the way it handled the complaints, not the passengers who reported their suspicions – unless it can be shown that those passengers acted maliciously, with the intent to discriminate.

That’s where it may get tricky.

History has shown that in the wrong hands, anything – including a crucifix or a Quran – can be a source of fear.

You can’t blame people for being scared. It’s what we all do with the fear.


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