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William Fisher: Not Flying While Muslim

Not Flying While Muslim

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Wednesday 29 November 2006

The paranoid wing of the blogosphere continues to go ballistic with joy about the six Muslim imams who were removed in handcuffs from a US Airways flight because one passenger thought it was "suspicious" that they knelt on their prayer rugs and prayed in the airport waiting room before boarding their flight.

The six had been attending a conference of imams in Minneapolis and were headed for Phoenix. Like all the other passengers, they had cleared the usual security screenings. But a passenger told CNN she saw the imams praying and thought they had made anti-US statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," according to Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The bloggers went wild.

"I think it's fairly obvious that these people cannot be trusted in any way shape or form.... Whomever the passenger(s) was/were who raised a stink about these jokers, he/she needs to be commended! Great work by US Airways for being vigilant, too ... Let the 'scholars' sue.... They don't have a case with this kind of evidence," blogged one reader on Jihad Watch.

Another encouraged readers to "phone, email or call and express your support for US Airways."

Yet another inveighed, "Starting to think the imams were testing security - otherwise why draw attention to yourself by praying like that? Also one was hamas [sic] linked..."

One conspiracy-theorist blogged, "Their refusal to accept the seats they were assigned makes it appear that they were acting as agents provocateurs, attempting to create a cause celebre to arouse radicalism in quiescent Muslims in the USA. That wouldn't surprise me at all."

Yet another used a "Happy Thanksgiving" blog post to give thanks that "Islam is on the radar screens of some pretty sharp minds..." and for "the small arsenal in my basement."

So let's hear it for US Airways. Its vigilance saved the nation from God only knows what catastrophe! And maybe the president should confer the Medal of Freedom on the sharp-eyed passenger who passed a note to a flight attendant about these "suspicious" people. She will then be in the august company of other heroes like George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer.

US Airways said it is investigating the imams' removal. "We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case and can provide answers for the employees and customers involved in this incident," the airline said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, the airline denied the clerics access to another flight and refused to assist them in obtaining tickets on another carrier. One of the imams told the AP that when he went back to the airport the following morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Russ Knocke of the DHS defended the airline's action. "We do not criticize anyone who errs on the side of security," he told CNN, but "we have absolutely no issue with any of these individuals."

"This was a difficult spot for the airport police and for the pilot," he said. "This is an unfortunate circumstance, and we recognize that these six individuals were inconvenienced and delayed about three hours." After the six imams were removed, they and their luggage were re-screened and the plane was checked out with dogs, Knocke said. "Everything checked out. The FBI and Secret Service conducted interviews and everything checked out fine," he said.

Still, authorities told the press they thought US Airways "made the right call."

Right for everyone but the six imams. And the millions of other American Muslims to whom the FBI, DHS, and other national security agencies say they're trying to reach out.

But US Airways' knee-jerk reaction to the six imams simply adds another layer of mistrust to the deep suspicion that still lingers after the treatment of Muslims following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That's when the FBI began to round up and detain "suspected terrorists." Arabs and other Muslims - as well as anyone who looked "Middle Eastern," including South Asian Sikhs - became the bureau's top targets. John Ashcroft's Justice Department scooped up hundreds of people for questioning, an effort now led by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. They were denied lawyers, held in prison-like conditions and, according to a DHS Inspector General's report, frequently physically abused. The FBI also shut down Muslim charities and froze their assets, monitored mosques for radiation and held refugees for months because of security checks.

That's the history the US Government is now trying to overcome. But the mistrust persists.

''You never hear the FBI say that part of the reason there has not been another terrorist attack in this country is because radical extremists have not found a home in American mosques,'' says Rebecca Abou-Chedid, director of government relations for the Arab American Institute, in Washington. "It's as if they believe that we know about terrorist cells and we're not telling them.''

The blogger's reference to Hamas refers to one of the ejected imams' alleged ties to a charity known as Kind Hearts, which was founded in Toledo, Ohio, in 2002, after the government shut down and froze the assets of the largest Muslim charities in the US for "providing material support" to terrorists and their organizations.

The Senate Finance Committee conducted a two-year investigation of Kind Hearts, along with two dozen other US Muslim charities. The chairman of the committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, announced that his panel found no evidence of criminal activity.

Thus far, even though the charity shut-downs began in 2002, only one charity has been charged with any wrongdoing, and none have been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, their assets remain frozen - sometimes resulting in lack of funds to hire defense lawyers.

Nevertheless, the US Department of the Treasury web site proclaims that "Kind Hearts is the progeny of Holy Land Foundation and Global Relief Foundation, which attempted to mask their support for terrorism behind the facade of charitable giving - By utilizing this specialized designation tool, we're able to prevent asset flight in support of terrorist activities while we further investigate the activities of Kind Hearts."

I have no idea whether any of these charities were actually providing "material support" to terrorist organizations. But the place to find out is in court, not on a Treasury Department web site.

I do have an idea about what the treatment of the six imams does for the absolutely vital relationships between Muslim-Americans, the US Government, and the "bad guys" that both are eager to bring to justice.

If major corporations like US Airways and its employees continue to cave on an accusation by a single paranoid passenger, and government officials hand out praise by describing that as "the right call," then both will have been complicit in crippling real efforts to find terrorists in our midst.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) today called on officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to launch a formal review of the incident and the possible violation of passengers' civil rights by US Airways. "We hope that by opening this type of investigation, US corporations can be held accountable by our government and the federal agencies can adequately address the racial profiling that is occuring in our nation's airports," said Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC Executive Director.

An excellent idea. I hope the government agencies will remember that US Airways had a choice: It could have invited the complaining passenger to leave the flight, thus assuring that she, at least, would not be slammed into the White House.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher - for more.

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