Two Muslim men said they were unfairly targeted by Alaska Airlines for texting in Arabic, which resulted in their removal from their flight in February 2020.
Abobakkr and Mohamed, two American citizens of Sudanese descent who are only being identified by their first names to protect their privacy, spoke at a virtual press conference on Monday and said their civil rights were violated when they were removed from a domestic flight.
“When we traveled that day, we were not treated like the rest of the people. It made me feel little and unequal,” said Abobakkr.
The latest incident is yet another example of what many Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers have described as “flying while Muslim,” a disturbing pattern of discriminatory experiences faced by passengers at airports. Since 9/11, Muslim and Arab travelers said they’ve been pulled aside for secondary screening each time they travel, asked personal questions about their religious and political views, or even kicked off a plane, all due to unwarranted ethnic and religious bias.
“‘Flying while Muslim’ has now become a globally recognized phenomenon of suspicion and humiliation, and this phenomenon must come to a stop,” said Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA.) “We call on Alaska Airlines to address the mistreatment of these men once and for all.”
CAIR, the national civil rights organization, said that February’s incident isn’t the first of its kind and that the group has received numerous similar complaints from Muslim travelers over the years. Other civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Muslim Advocates have also documented discriminatory profiling concerns involving several different airlines. The CAIR-WA team said they hope to settle the matter with Alaska Airlines but are prepared to file a lawsuit if need be.
“We’re sorry that two of our guests had such a distressing experience last February when they were removed from their flight after a fellow passenger became concerned about the text messages his seatmate was sharing. Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination, and we take such complaints very seriously,” an Alaska Airlines spokesperson told HuffPost in an emailed statement.
The spokesperson added that the airline has opened an internal investigation “to determine whether there were any missteps on our part.”
‘Flying While Muslim’
It is unclear how many Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers, as well as those who are perceived to be Muslim, are 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 U.S. resident based on his ethnicity after two TSA agents demanded the passenger remove his shirt, which had Arabic writing on it.
In 2012, Atlantic Southeast Airlines received a $25,000 civil penalty for unlawfully removing two imams from a flight and not allowing the religious leaders to reboard the aircraft after law enforcement officials determined they didn’t pose any threat.
In 2015, four Muslims, two of whom were of Middle Eastern descent, were removed from their Baltimore flight after a passenger complained about “suspicious activity” ― which amounted to a Muslim passenger simply reading a news report on his phone.
In 2016, a traveler also on Alaska Airlines, said he couldn’t 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 overheard him speaking Arabic on his cellphone.
A Muslim couple from Ohio returning from a European trip to celebrate their wedding anniversary were removed from a Delta Air flight in July 2016 after a flight attendant complained to the pilot that the couple made her uncomfortable.
Deplaned Over A Text Message
On Feb. 17, 2020, Abobakkr and Mohamed boarded an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to San Francisco for a business trip. While waiting in their first-class seats for take-off, Abobakkr exchanged a few text messages in Arabic on his cellphone. A nearby passenger, who did not speak Arabic, noticed and reported those text messages to a flight attendant as suspicious, according to CAIR.
The two friends were then asked to deboard the plane and questioned for approximately two hours, they said at Monday’s press conference. Abobakkr said that he was directed to hand over his phone and that officials went through the text messages in question as well as other content on his phone, including his photos. The text messages were translated by an Alaska Airlines representative, the men said, and they were questioned by a Port of Seattle police officer, the TSA and the FBI.
Even though the text messages were deemed innocuous by police, the remaining passengers were also forced to deplane so that the airline could conduct a security sweep of the cargo with a K9 unit and “even took the additional step of emptying first-class lavatory tanks, simply because one of the men had used the bathroom while waiting on the delayed flight,” according to CAIR’s press release.
“It was a miserable day altogether from beginning to end.”
The pair said they felt particularly humiliated and distressed as the other deplaning passengers were led past the men as they were being questioned.
Even after the investigation concluded that the men did not pose any threat, they said the Alaska Airlines representative prohibited them from reboarding their original flight and booked them onto later, separate flights, forcing them to miss their events in San Francisco.
“It was a miserable day altogether from beginning to end,” said Mohamed, who added that he felt anger and judgment directed at him from other passengers.
The men said they didn’t speak up about the incident at the time because they were hopeful that Alaska Airlines would make amends and didn’t want to escalate the situation after the airline industry took a financial hit during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Now with vaccines coming and more people traveling, the men decided to go public with their story.
Abobakkr and Mohamed said that it’s been difficult talking about their experience flying with Alaska Airlines and that they are likely to rethink how they go about future travels. The two men are asking the airline for an apology, a refund of their tickets, and a review of policies and cultural competency training to better handle future similar events.
“I will go to the end of this process because I want the airlines to stop doing this to any person. We are speaking up not just for Muslim people but for any person, whoever it is,” said Abobakkr.