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Terror probe Imams taken off flight want to teach airline crews about Islam -vow more'intimidation by prayer' at airports

December 4, 2006

Angry Muslim Scholars return home Were kicked off US Airways flight, detained By Chris Kahn The Associated Press Tucson, Arizona | Published: 11.22.2006

PHOENIX Furious and travel weary, five Muslim scholars returned home from Minneapolis on Tuesday, 22 hours after a US Airways flight crew refused to welcome them aboard.

The five men Omar Shahin, Mahmoud Sulaiman, Marwan Sadeddin, Didmar Faja and Ahmad Shqeirat walked into a Sky Harbor International Airport terminal to chants of "Allah-U Akbar" (God is great) from family and friends, who'd been waiting for more than an hour.

They are not regular people, you know," said Shahin's wife, Maisoon Skour. "They're the leaders of our community."

The scholars were escorted off the US Airways plane Monday when a passenger handed the flight captain a note pointing out "suspicious Arabic men." They said they were questioned by police and the FBI, detained in a holding cell with loud music and occasionally surrounded by police dogs. "Ignorance," Shahin told reporters at the terminal. "What happened to us is terrible." US Airways officials said it was interviewing crew members and ground workers about what happened. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said it also was reviewing the matter.

Shahin said he thought one of the reasons the scholars were detained was because before they entered the plane, three of the five knelt in the Minneapolis terminal and said their evening prayers. US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader, who came to the airport to see the scholars, said she wasn't prepared to apologize. "I can't say that at this point," Rader said. "We want to talk to our employees. We want to talk to these customers and let them know we want to do the right thing." Rader said she didn't have much information about what happened in Minneapolis. But according to an airport police report, a US Airways manager said three of the men had one-way tickets and no checked baggage. A passenger also told police the men made critical comments about the war in Iraq.

Some of the men also asked for seat belt extensions even though a flight attendant told police she thought they didn't need them. Shahin said even after the FBI cleared them to fly, US Airways still refused to sell them new tickets. The scholars finally booked flights on Northwest Airlines to Phoenix for five of the imams from the Phoenix-Tempe area and to Los Angeles for the sixth, who was from Bakersfield, Calif. "Nobody listened to us," Shahin said. The scholars had attended a federation meeting this week in Minneapolis with about 150 others. Shahin denied that they planned the airport prayer to educate people about Islam.

But Mohammed Abuhannoud, director of Phoenix chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it wouldn't hurt if they did. "The best way to educate people is by letting them see it," he said. "I think that after this incident, many people will understand that Muslims have a prayer."

All five men live in the Phoenix area. Shahin's wife said she waited for hours Monday before hearing that her husband was detained. "He called me and said 'I'm going to be late.' " Skour said. "After that, I kept calling and there was no answer." Five hours later, Shahin called back and said they'd been kicked off the plane. On Tuesday afternoon, she waited at the airport with daughter Sarah perched on her hip. Other family members arrived, followed by Christian and Muslim clergy, and reporters filtered in as the plane arrived late. "Who's coming in?" a dazed passenger asked, looking as a half-dozen television cameras focused on the gate. "Our husbands," Skour said, beaming. "Well, congratulations!" The plane landed, and Skour teetered back and forth, peering over shoulders for her husband. Shahin scooped up Sarah as he walked past. After scolding US Airways, Shahin said he forgave them and offered to counsel flight crews about Islam. This will not be the last time Muslims pray at an airport, he said.

Local angle ● One of the six Muslim imams removed from a US Airways flight on Monday is the former imam of the Islamic Center of Tucson. Omar Shahin, now president of the North American Imams Federation, was the imam of Tucson's largest mosque for three years, from 2000 to June 2003, when he left abruptly. The Jordanian now is imam of the Islamic Center of the East Valley, in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler.

Shahin believes that the imams were taken in for questioning because three of them had been praying aloud in a corner of the terminal before boarding the plane. "I've never been treated like this in my life," he said. "It's obvious discrimination. Muslims do our prayer five times a day. If this is suspicious activity, it is a problem." The Islamic Center of Tucson, a Sunni Muslim mosque, has about 1,200 worshippers, and is now searching for an imam. Center spokesman Muhammad As'ad said he's appalled by what happened to Shahin and the other imams. "This is really absurd. It is stereotyping and profiling," he said. "If someone is a bomber or a terrorist, do you think they will draw attention to themselves before getting on a plane?" About 8,000 Muslims live in the Tucson metro area, about 1 percent of the local population. Stephanie Innes

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