Muslim Men Kicked Off Flight Over Arabic Text Messages
Two Muslim men said they were wrongly attacked by Alaska Airlines for texting in Arabic, which resulted in their being banned from their flight in February 2020.
Abobakkr and Mohamed, two American citizens of Sudanese descent identified only by their first names to protect their privacy, spoke at a virtual press conference Monday and said their civil rights were violated when they were removed from a domestic flight.
“When we traveled that day, we weren't treated like the rest of the people. I felt small and unequal, ”said Abobakkr.
The recent incident is yet another example of what many Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers have described as "flying while Muslim", a troubling pattern of discriminatory experiences that passengers face at airports. Since September 11, Muslim and Arab travelers have reported being pulled aside for secondary exams, asking personal questions about their religious and political views, or even getting off a plane every time they travel, all because of unfair ethnic and religious biases .
"Flying while Muslim has become a globally recognized phenomenon of suspicion and humiliation, and that phenomenon must stop," said Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Washington State Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-). WA.) "We urge Alaska Airlines to address the abuse of these men once and for all."
CAIR, the national civil rights organization, said the February incident was not the first of its kind and that the group had received numerous similar complaints from Muslim travelers over the years. Other civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Muslim Advocates have also documented discriminatory profiling issues involving several different airlines. The CAIR-WA team said it hopes to clear the matter with Alaska Airlines but is ready to file a lawsuit if necessary.
"We're sorry that two of our guests had such a disturbing experience last February when they were removed from their flight after a fellow passenger became concerned about the text messages shared by their seatmate. Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits the illegal Discrimination, and we take such complaints very seriously, ”an Alaska Airlines spokesman told HuffPost in an email.
The spokesman added that the airline has opened an internal investigation "to see if we have made any missteps".
"Flying While Muslims"
It is unclear how many Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers, as well as those perceived as Muslims, will be targeted each year as there is no organization tracking such incidents. However, many complaints and lawsuits have been filed.
In 2009, Transportation Security Administration officials and JetBlue paid $ 240,000 to settle charges that they illegally discriminated against a US resident based on ethnicity after two TSA agents asked the passenger to remove his shirt take off with Arabic script.
In 2012, Atlantic Southeast Airlines received a civil fine of $ 25,000 for illegally removing two imams from a flight and forbidding religious leaders to board the plane after police officers determined they were not a threat.
In 2015, four Muslims, two of whom were from the Middle East, were removed from their flight to Baltimore after a passenger complained about "suspicious activity" - the equivalent of a Muslim passenger simply reading a news report on their phone.
In 2016, a traveler who was also with Alaska Airlines said he could not board his flight after another passenger complained about his beard and said he looked "Arabic and scary". That same year, an Iraqi refugee was removed from a southwest flight after another passenger heard him speak Arabic on his cell phone.
A Muslim couple from Ohio who were returning from a European trip to celebrate their wedding anniversary were banned from a Delta Air flight in July 2016 after a flight attendant complained to the pilot that the couple made them uncomfortable.
Scheduled via a text message
On February 17, 2020, Abobakkr and Mohamed boarded an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to San Francisco for a business trip. While Abobakkr waited in their prime seats for the start, he exchanged a few Arabic text messages on his cell phone. A nearby passenger who did not speak Arabic noticed this text message and reported it to a flight attendant as suspicious, according to CAIR.
The two friends were then asked to get off the plane and interviewed for about two hours, they said at the press conference on Monday. Abobakkr said he was instructed to hand over his phone and that the officers went through the text messages in question and other content on his phone, including his photos. The text messages were translated by an Alaska Airlines representative, the men said, and they were interviewed by a Seattle Port Police officer, TSA, and FBI.
Although the text messages were deemed harmless by the police, the remaining passengers also had to fly out for the airline to perform a security pass through the cargo with a K9 unit and "even took the extra step of emptying premium toilet tanks." simply because one of the men had used the toilet while waiting for the delayed flight, ”according to the CAIR press release.
It was a miserable day from start to finish.
Mohamed, an American, took off a plane in February
The couple said they felt especially humiliated and distraught as the other departing passengers were shown past the men when they were interviewed.
Even after the investigation found the men posed no threat, they said the Alaska Airlines representative banned them from re-boarding their original flight and booked them on later, separate flights, forcing them to stop their events in San Francisco to miss.
"It was a miserable day from start to finish," said Mohamed, who added that he felt anger and judgment directed at him by other passengers.
The men said they did not speak about the incident at the time in hopes that Alaska Airlines would remedy the situation and did not want to escalate the situation after the aviation industry suffered a financial blow during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Now that vaccines are coming and more people are traveling, the men decided to get their story out there.
Abobakkr and Mohamed said it has been difficult to talk about their flight experience with Alaska Airlines and they would likely reconsider how they plan future trips. The two men ask the airline for an apology, a refund of their tickets, and a review of guidelines and cultural skills training to better cope with future similar events.
“I will go to the end of this process because I want the airlines to stop harming someone. We speak out not only for Muslims, but for every person, whoever it is, ”said Abobakkr.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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