Scary Bad Guys

Six imams were forced off a USAir flight on the Monday before Thanksgiving because another passenger was “uncomfortable.” Forced off. In handcuffs. In Minneapolis, where they’d “…been attending a three-day meeting of the North American Imams Federation in the Minneapolis area ‘discussing how to build bridges’ between Muslims and American society…” (from the Reuters story at

OK, the story is a little more complicated than that. Imagine six rabbis coming home after a reviving few days in the company of dozens or hundreds (in this case about 150) of their fellows at a rabbinic conference. When you attend these things, the airport is where you get the rude shock of awakening: Hey, you’re a minority within a minority again, you’re not in that lovely safe space anymore where you and your friends and acquaintaces and fellow rabbis (imams, Jews, Muslims) are everywhere. You can keep the feeling during the taxi ride, but it dissipates when you get to that big check-in hall filled with hundreds of people who don’t care about you. But still, the cameraderie and sense of bouyancy that come from attending such a conference can be stretched even into the airport, if you are travelling in the company of friends who are also returning home.

My hypothetical rabbis get to the airport and it’s time to davven mincha — that is, pray the afternoon prayer. They stand to the side, swaying and mumbling out of their little books. Weird looks. These imams probably stretched out their prayer rugs and prayed, standing shoulder to shoulder and kneeling and reciting non-English words from memory. Weird looks.

Then they get on the plane. And here is exactly what they are accused of doing:

“…some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war, asked to change seats once inside the cabin, that one requested an extender to make his seat belt larger even though he did not appear to need it and that in general ‘there was some peculiar behavior.’” (From the Reuters story again.)

So they’re exercising their right of free speech to criticize their government — I am assuming here that these imams are American citizens, which is most probable. They’re probably continuing a thread of conversation that had begun over the weekend. You could have heard the same thing following a get-together of any of hundreds of other groups. Lots of us are criticizing the American government about its handling of the war. We’re allowed to do that, remember? Even on an airplane. I wonder just what these men said that was tagged as “anti-American” rather than “criticizing the government.”

So they wanted to sit together. Wouldn’t you?! I often have trouble getting seats together for my whole family, so I ask to change seats all the time once I get on a plane. Folks take one look at my two small children and comply willingly! In this case it’s even more likely that the imams would have to switch in order to sit together, because they probably made their own reservations individually and only hoped that they might get to sit together, to extend the collegiality of the conference through the flight home. I just don’t think that this is a handcuffable offense.

So someone was afraid that one of the men had an explosive belt hidden under his clothing. Right? Isn’t that what the seatbelt nonsense is about? Excuse me, that’s what the security screening is for, right? So we don’t have to worry once we get on the plane? I get it that security screening is not perfect, but the logic here escapes me. Becuase the big problem with all this is that if these men looked and sounded Swedish instead of vaguely dark and Middle Eastern, nobody would have equated asking for a belt extender with anything dangerous. Or moving around the cabin more than the flight attendant wanted you to. Or talking politics.

They were removed from the plane in handcuffs, questioned, the entire plane was re-screened (and took off 3 hours late), and these six men WERE DENIED BOARDING ON ANY OTHER USAIR FLIGHT. As Imam Omar Shahin, one of the six, said, “Six scholars in handcuffs.” It’s a shanda, an embarrassment, a shame. Not for the six imams, though they certainly had reason to feel humiliated by their treatment, but for those whose fear prompted them to complain and even moreso for those who treated the men like they constituted a danger, simply because they were clearly Muslim.

Apparently their tickets weren’t refunded, either, rather forfeited. That’s just plain rude.

So after Thanksgiving, several imams, some Christian clergy, and our own Rabbi Arthur Waskow staged a pray-in at the airport in Washington DC. (Couldn’t they have found at least one supportive clergywoman, though?) Here’s the TU story about the pray-in. Here’s
Rabbi Waskow’s message about it. And here’s a picture that I am proud of:

That’s Rabbi Waskow on the right, linking arms with (right to left) Mahdi Bray, Director of the Muslim American Society; Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, with the National Black Leadership Roundtable; Ibrahim Ramey, Director of Civil and Human Rights with the Muslim American Society (just behind the linked four); and Imam Omar Shahin. They are at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday, Nov. 27, 2006. That’s yesterday. (This photo and others can be found here.)

It reminds me of nothing so much as the famous (to those of us who know) photograph of the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965. The marchers in this photo include, from left to right: U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who had been severely beaten on March 7, 1965, while leading the “Bloody Sunday” march; an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. (The photo, this description, and more info can be found here.)
Rev. King, Rabbi Heschel and others - 21 March, 1965

I think the comparison is apt. One rabbi, and one rabbi only, apparently, had the prior connections that allowed him to be present and accounted for in support of a group even more distressed than Jews. (There’s a lot I could say about that, and to some it might sound funny without further explanation, since white-skinned American Jews generally enjoy a level of privilege equal to or above other white-skinned Americans, due to our academic and economic advancement. But let me tell you, that situation is less that 100 years old.) I don’t know the backstory with Rabbi Heschel. But I do know that Rabbi Waskow has been cultivating personal relationships with Muslim leaders for several years, and has been doing interfaith dialogue so much that he published a book about how Judaism, Islam and Christianity view the Abraham stories. And so when these imams decided to stage the pray-in, they had someone in the Jewish community to call … and they could call, and they did call, and he showed up, even though it meant getting home a day late.

I have my own local connections. We don’t nurture them as full-time as Rabbi Waskow does — we all have our own congregations to give first priority to. But we do get together on a regular basis — in fact we’re talking this week, and I wonder what we’ll say about this.

Bigots — 1, “Linking arms across our differences” — 1. We’re not getting very far yet, are we?

See Part II.