Flying Imams Incident: Imams at the airport

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On November 20, 2006, six Muslim men at the Minneapolis airport were taken in handcuffs off their US Air flight to Phoenix, detained and interrogated by the FBI for several hours, and then released. They could return to their homes in Phoenix only some twenty hours later�courtesy of Northwest Airlines, since the US Air again refused to accommodate them. Their detention, it was reported, was in response to complaints by airline staff and other travelers, who accused them of ‘unsettling’ and ‘suspicious’ behavior, including ‘prayers at the gate.’

The note passed on by a passenger to a flight attendant has been published in the newspapers; it reads: ‘6 suspicious Arabic men on plane, spaced out in their seats. All were together, saying “…Allah …Allah”, cursing US involvement w/Saddam before flight. 1 in front exit now, another in first row 1st class, another in 8 D, another in 22 D, two in 25 E&F.’ For that observant traveler, the main suspicious act was the men’s being obviously being together at the gate but then spacing themselves out inside the plane.

I watched the news on the ABC’s evening program on Tuesday, and saw six men who looked quite ordinary except that they were all slightly overweight. Ironically, one perceptive flight attendant had reportedly become suspicious because some of the men asked for seat-belt extensions while she ‘did not see they actually needed them.’

In response to the incident, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the NAACP have called for Congressional hearings on racial profiling, and also an investigation by the Justice Department and the Transportation Security Administration. These are fair and reasonable demands, and they might even get favorable responses. Quite likely, the aggrieved individuals will receive an apology and perhaps even some compensation. But not much improvement can be expected to come about in the existing state of suspicion, misunderstanding, and misbehavior. That will require a lot more effort on the part of the TV channels, the non-Muslim public, and the Muslims themselves.

I single out the TV, because it desperately must show pictures even when they are not relevant. Consequently, it frequently turns into singularly emblematic what is essentially innocuous. Not too long ago, the sight of a man or woman genuflecting and prostrating in prayer in a corner of an airport lounge would have aroused only curiosity, leading perhaps even to a friendly and useful exchange between a Muslim and a non-Muslim about different ways of praying. But, having seen countless TV reports in which Muslims are shown praying only when the reporter talks about terrorists, the same non-Muslim can well be expected to respond differently. Imagine, how people would have felt about Catholicism some years ago, if every TV report on IRA bombings in England had also included a few seconds of a Mass in progress. Imagine also the uproar of condemnation it would have caused. Presently, no TV report on any so-called Muslim country, e.g. Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, can now be without a bit where the Muslim call to prayers is sounded. No one in the industry objects to it. Imagine, on the other hand, the reaction if any report on Israel’s actions in Gaza also showed some Jews praying in a synagogue, or if church bells were heard to chime in the background while the reporter talked about Abu Ghraib.

I’m not an observant Muslim at all, and yet I catch myself saying, ‘Allah,’ several times during the day. I do so when I feel tired getting out of the bed, or when I stretch myself sitting before the computer. I also often say, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ as an exclamation of surprise over something good. Much the same is habitual to any number of Muslims, who invoke God’s name to convey humility, draw solace, gain patience, find strength, express gratitude, praise excellence, and much, much more. Unfortunately, so do also Muslim suicide bombers, sectarian killers, and assorted fanatics, as they go about doing their ungodly work. Not because they are devout Muslims�as the TV pictures would have you believe�but either out of a multi-faceted cultural habit or as an artful wish on the part of some to appear more devout than others. An example of the latter occurred just before Operation Desert Storm, when Saddam Husain wrote ‘Allahu Akbar’ on Iraq’s flag in order to appear as devout a Muslim as the Saudis, who, in turn, display their devoutness by having the entire Muslim confession of faith on their flag.

Much though it may be desired by some, neither I nor countless other people can suddenly stop behaving in public spaces the way it comes natural to us. We may try, for our own sake, but we are bound to fail fairly often, and should be allowed to expect some understanding from those around us. The task before the US Air personnel at the airport was to assuage the fears of some of the passengers. They did so by removing the six Muslims, but they could have achieved the same goal differently had they been better informed, and also more willing to accommodate those who didn’t look like them.

A man in the ABC report was shown asking why the Muslims couldn’t behave like him? He too always ‘prayed’ before boarding a plane, but did so quietly and by himself. His question points to another misunderstanding. Most Muslims do in fact pray silently and separately by themselves when they seek God’s protection during a journey or any other activity. The Muslims who prayed together in the boarding lounge, however, were not praying for protection during the flight as that man concluded; they were praying as a group to fulfill one of their daily religious obligations�to pray five times at fixed hours of the day, and to do so in a group if at all possible.

And that leads me to ask a different set of questions, which I address to the Muslims involved in the incident. The news reports described them as Imams or religious leaders, and therefore I can expect them to be well informed at least on religious matters. I ask them: why did you pray at the gate, instead of going to the prayer room which is available at most major airports, and why did you not just wait to pray until after you had reached Phoenix? Islam as a religion allows much leeway in such matters. ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ says a well-known verse in the Koran. There are indeed five obligatory daily prayers, but if a Muslim misses one, or even many, he is allowed to make up for the missed prayers later. No shame or sin attaches to that person. Shouldn’t you have shown better sense� and also a better feel for what is good for all�and not prayed until later in the privacy of your mosque? Did you, dear imams, explain to the people near you at the gate what you intended to do, and did you get their assurance that your praying will not bother them? Did you stop to think that just as you had bligations to God, you also had obligations�ordained by God�to other human beings, particularly so in these terrible times of suspicion and fear?

To my mind, the incident at the Minneapolis airport grew as much out of the wrongful and self-righteous attitude of the Imams, who could have acted as sensible and sensitive human beings while remaining devoutly Muslim, as out of the xenophobic paranoia of some passengers and the racist bias of the airline personnel. However, to say that is not to deny that passengers with ‘Muslim names’ and/or ‘Arab/Muslim looks’ have been targets of racial profiling and worst suspicions since 9/11. The situation is not likely to change soon; in fact, things may get worse when a ‘Who lost Iraq?’ syndrome sets in. And that makes it the more imperative for American Muslims to be careful in choosing the fights they must fight in the public space and the concessions they must make there.

C. M. Naim is Professor Emeritus of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

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