Flying imams in the rear-view mirror: What was the evidence against them?

Muslims and members of Interfaith Groups gather for a congregational prayer service and rally in a park opposite US Airways headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 1, 2006, following the removal of six imams from a flight at MSP.
REUTERS/Jeff Topping
Muslims and members of Interfaith Groups gather for a congregational prayer service and rally in a park opposite US Airways headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 1, 2006, following the removal of six imams from a flight at MSP.

As you have probably heard, the case of the “flying imams” has been settled. The six Muslim clerics who were pulled off a U.S. Airways flight at the Twin Cities airport on Nov. 20, 2006 by Metro Airport Commission police will be paid an undisclosed sum by some combination of the MAC, U.S. Air  and possibly the FBI in exchange for which the imams will drop their suit alleging improper arrest and other acts of discrimination or defamation.

The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed, but it covers all claims and all defendants. The imams have declared themselves satisfied with the outcome. Since the MAC and the FBI are public institutions, perhaps the amount of their payments may be eventually become known.

The case caused a huge hullabaloo around these parts on when the clerics were arrested. Congress even passed a law — and the Minnesota case was discussed on the floor of the House as the motivation for the law — designed to protect people from reporting their suspicions under circumstances like this. (The passengers who originally raised questions about the imams were not defendants and have not been named publicly. It is not a crime, nor a tort, for a passenger to report his suspicions to the airline crew.)

The imams, and the way they were arrested, became for a time the symbol of the post-9/11 national nervousness about Middle Easterners on airplanes and for the allegation that you could get arrested for the “crime” of “flying while Muslim.”

The nervousness was understandable, but that didn’t make it constitutional. The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable seizures by the government, which in a case like this means that even the shock of the 9/11 attacks didn’t repeal the simple rule that police cannot arrest someone unless they have probable cause to believe that the arrestees have committed a crime.

Clearly, the MAC cops had no reliable cause to believe that the imams had committed a crime. What crime would it be? So the only justification would be that their actions, which caused a nervous passenger to send a note up to the cockpit, made it likely that the Muslim clerics were going to do something deadly while the plane was in flight.

If you think back to those days, you’ll recall some of the basis for the suspicion. According to witnesses, the imams prayed loudly in the terminal. They criticized the U.S. war in Iraq. They were holding one-way tickets. They had no checked luggage. They seated themselves in a suspicious manner around the plane. Several of them asked for seat-belt extenders (which, to sufficiently nervous eyes, may have been used as weapons).

I didn’t cover the case when it first broke, but I remember thinking, when I heard about the seating pattern and heard about the seat-belt extenders, that there may indeed have been something suspicious going on. Why would thin people need seat-balt extenders? That instinct was wrong, completely, as were many of the allegations on which it was based. But I remember and confess the thought, by way of expressing some sympathy for those who got carried away by their suspicions. This is really a story about the understandable national jumpiness in the post-9/11 era.

The big break that led to the settlement was probably the opinion, written by federal Judge Ann Montgomery of Minneapolis in July, rejecting the MAC’s motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment (which is a way of getting a lawsuit dismissed) is often rejected. Turning down a summary judgment motion only means that the case can proceed toward trial. So losing a summary judgment motion didn’t mean that the Imams were going to win their case.

But the strength and clarity of Montgomery’s opinion surely alerted the defendants that they were in a world of trouble if the case reached trial. So I’m basing my analysis of the case heavily on the Montgomery ruling, which has the advantage of being based on actual sworn depositions of witnesses, and filtering a lot of things that turned out not to be true.

After a careful review of the evidence up to that point, and leaving open the possibility of other information that could come out at trial, Montgomery wrote that the imams had certainly been arrested, and that no reasonable basis existed for the arrest. Although the defendants filed notice of an appeal of the Montgomery ruling, settlement negotiations presumably took on a new urgency for the MAC and the airline, and they settled the case shortly after their appellate briefs were due.

As you review the facts of the case, ask yourself which of the “suspicious” actions of the imams would have been suspicious if they had not been Muslims.

Background

Here’s what Montgomery found:

The six imams, five from Arizona and one from California, had attended a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation. Nothing secretive about the conference. The FBI had been invited to give a presentation but had declined.

On the day of their flight home, the six Muslim clerics, and their luggage, passed through the airport security screening with no problems. Although the lack of checked luggage was one of the causes for suspicion (and how, in these days when many people travel with carry-on luggage only, could that be deemed evidence of an intent to commit a crime), it turned out that three of the imams actually did check bags. Three did not.

The six men actually had round-trip tickets, but three of the imams had changed from their original return flight and so had booked what looked like a one-way ticket home. Those facts are not in dispute and the airline was aware of them before the imams were removed from the plane. (Once you know that, the supposedly suspicious fact about the one-way ticket kind of disappears, doesn’t it?)

In keeping with the religious requirements of devout Muslims, three of the imams prayed in the airport, in the empty gate next to the departure gate. They knelt, prostrated themselves and chanted. It was mentioned by those who reported the imams to the flight crew that they prayed “loudly” and were heard to chant “Allah, Allah.”

This clearly was a key point at which some of the non-Muslim passengers began to notice the men and to get nervous. But ask yourself whether Muslims praying to Allah, loudly or softly, could be taken as evidence that they were planning to commit a crime. Wrote Montgomery:

“Plaintiffs’ Middle Eastern descent does not change the analysis. Similar behavior by Russian Orthodox priests or Franciscan monks would likely not have elicited this response.”

Once they boarded, the imams mostly did not sit together. One of the imams was blind, and one of the others asked a passenger to trade seats so he could accompany the blind man. The rest of them were seated all around the plane, one in first class, the rest in coach.

In the early news reports, this seating pattern was listed as another ground for suspicion. I recall reading that the imams were occupying the exit rows (which, I recall, was another moment when I wondered whether there was something suspicious going on).

But the evidence showed that only one of the six men was seated in an exit row, which had been assigned to him by the airline. Except for the one who had traded to sit with his blind colleague, all of them were sitting in the seats they had been assigned by the airline. The one in first class was up there because of his frequent flier status. The airline, of course, had all this information. Again, the “suspicious” seating pattern kind of goes away once you know these facts.

Seat belt extenders are used by large passengers who have trouble buckling a regular-length seatbelt. I also recall reading that all or most of the imams had requested seat belt extenders, including some who were of average size. I also recall buying into the idea that seat-belt extenders could useful as weapons by a group of passengers seeking to take over a flight for nefarious purposes.

But Montgomery found — based on undisputed testimony — that only two of the imams had requested the extenders, and both of them were large men for whom the request should not have seemed particularly strange. Bear in mind that extenders are made available by the airline. The flight attendants provided the extenders and helped the imams buckle in. Upon reflection, it’s strange to think that something the airline keeps aboard and offers to passengers could be viewed as a valuable weapon for commandeering the plane. In her ruling, Montgomery wrote:

“The MAC Defendants have produced no evidence of a documented instance in which seatbelt extensions were used as a weapon or that law enforcement ever expressed concern about their use as a weapon. It is difficult to understand what danger a seatbelt extension poses that is not also posed by a sturdy belt with a large buckle.”

All of the evidentiary matters above were undisputed and were or could have been known to the airline and the MAC before they kicked the imams off the plane. There was one more issue that was raised by the suspicious passengers, and apparently taken into account by the pilot and the police, that is in dispute.

The last basis for the suspicions was the claim of one passenger that “the men talked about Saddam Hussein, U.S. involvement in Iraq, and cursed about the United States.” The imams have denied that they made any such remarks. So that’s the only key evidentiary point in dispute. Under the rules for a summary judgment motion, Montgomery had to assume the truth of the facts most favorable to the non-moving party — that is, to the imams (since this was a motion for summary judgment brought by the defendants in the case. But she found that it really made little difference whether the imams had made the remarks or not. In her ruling, Montgomery wrote:

“Commenting on current events, and even criticizing governmental policy is protected speech under the First Amendment. It cannot be taken a crime and should not be used as probable cause for an arrest.”

This pretty much summarizes all of the grounds for suspicion that existed. A passenger who had been watching all of the above wrote a note, gave it to a flight attendant who brought it to the captain. It read:

“6 suspicious Arabic men on plane, spaced out in their seats. All were together, saying ‘. . . Allah . . . Allah,’ cursing U.S. involvement w/Saddam before flight—1 in front exit row, another in first row 1st class, another in 8D, another in 22D, two in 25 E&F.”

The pilot announced that the flight was delayed. A U.S. Air manager called the MAC police dispatcher and said (this call was recorded and the transcript was available to the court) that the airline had decided to remove “six Arabic passengers.” The manager explained the note from the suspicious passenger. Note that the decision to remove the men was made by the airline, not the police.

Police cars pulled up on the tarmac. MAC police came onto the plane and interviewed the suspicious passenger, who told them the same things he had said in the note. The FBI were consulted and dispatched agents to the plane.

Were they arrested?


The next details reflect on the question of whether what was done to the imams could be viewed as merely an investigative detention or must be termed an “arrest,” which elevates the requirement of probable cause.

The MAC police ordered the imams to leave the plane. On the jetway, they were lined up, told they were not free to leave or to speak to one another.  They were subsequently taken back on the plane and told to remove their carry-on bags. Back on the jetway, the bags were inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs. No explosives were found.

The six were detained on the jetway for about an hour. Then they were taken to the airport police facilities, handcuffed, pat-searched and questioned, eventually by FBI and Secret Service agents. They were ultimately detained between five and six hours, then released. No charges were filed. The judge concluded that the six definitely were arrested. If the imams had merely been removed from the flight, not handcuffed or detained for hours, this part of the case might have gone away.

The technical legal line between a detention and an arrest is apparently subject to some interpretation. But being taken away in a police car, handcuffed, held for hours and told you are not free to leave are all elements that caused Judge Montgomery to rule that the men had been arrested. So, to avoid a charge of discriminatory or false arrest, the cops had to have probable cause to believe that they had committed or were in the process of committing a crime.

What crime? The MAC defendants mentioned crimes such as “air piracy,” “interference with flight crew members” or “terroristic threats.” At the oral arguments on the summary judgment motion, a U.S. attorney was asked, if he was drawing up a charge, what overt acts by the imams he could have cited as evidence that the imams had committed any of the offenses? The prosecutor couldn’t name any. In her ruling,  Montgomery concluded:

“An examination of the elements of these statutes indicates that no reasonable officer could believe that there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiffs for a violation of any of these statutes.”

Montgomery went over all of the elements of the suspicious passenger’s suspicion that the imams had been up to no good. Some of them turned out to be untrue or exaggerated. But the judge concluded that:


“This information, if it were all true, falls short of leading a reasonable officer to conclude there was probable cause that a crime was being or had been committed. No officer has stated that he evaluated the factors and made a probable cause determination—arguable, or otherwise. [The MAC police officer] agrees he made no probable cause determination. When asked if he had probable cause an individual had committed a crime, [the officer] testified that he did not make that determination.”


This is pretty serious and it gets to the essence of the case, at least where the police were involved. You’re a police officer. You know that you cannot make an arrest without probable cause. But, in this case, you made an arrest and subsequently had to acknowledge that you had failed determine, or to ask yourself, whether probable cause was present.

I have quite a bit of sympathy — perhaps more than is coming through in this post — for the officers and the airline officials who made these decisions. This was not the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/2001. In fact, it was slightly more than five years later. But what happened at the World Trade Center surely sets the stage for what happened at the Lindbergh Terminal. If you were an air traveler (like the suspicious passenger) or an air travel professional (like the cockpit crew) and especially if you were an airport police officer, it’s easy to imagine and to identify with the feeling that nothing would matter more to you than preventing an airplane hijacking (or worse) if there was anything you could do about it.

Montgomery took this on directly, and quite eloquently:

“Finally, the MAC Defendants suggest that the attacks of September 11, 2001—perpetrated by men of Middle Eastern descent who espoused a radical version of Islam—justifies a massive curtailment of liberty whenever terrorism, and in this case, the suspicion of Islamic terrorism, is concerned.

“Unquestionably the events of 9/11 changed the calculus in the balance American society chooses to make, especially in airport settings, between liberty and security. Ultimately, the proper balance will be achieved, in large part, because we have the most capable and diligent law enforcement and intelligence communities in the world. But when a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility. On the record before the Court, no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause. The right that was violated is clearly established, and, thus, the MAC Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on the unreasonable seizure claim.”

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Comments (42)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/26/2009 - 06:34 am.

    Interesting post and in hindsight, it really does look like an extreme overreaction. I work in the travel industry and can (perhaps) add some light to parts of this. An airline can certainly tell if a one way ticket was exchanged from a roundtrip but it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious if they weren’t looking for it. A quick glance at a ticket wouldn’t show it. Same thing with seats. If the change in plans meant switching to a different airline (and I don’t know that to be the case with any of the imams) then it wouldn’t show either of these things.
    On the flip side, airlines are making more and more one way fares available, pushing cost conscious travelers into more one way tickets. This is less of a legitimate red flag now. If it ever really was a good one.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/26/2009 - 07:56 am.

    Wondering how many of these lies about the Imams (i.e. they purchased one-way tickets) were originated with Katherine Kersten at the Strib?

  3. Submitted by John Roach on 10/26/2009 - 08:35 am.

    There have been a couple incidents like this one, where obviously devout muslim passengers perform their prayers in a way that freaks out a few of their fellow travelers.

    A flight landing in Los Angeles several years ago was met by the FBI due to concerns about the praying behavior of some Syrian musicians on board. Certain islamophobic writers made a cottage industry out of the incident.

    Like most things of this nature, the subsequent investigation finding that these people were not actual threats was dismissed as a “cover up” by these same writers. They subsequently wrote a large family of articles decrying and explaining this “coverup”. The same thing will happen with the “flying imams” incident.

    Persons who are actual threats are not particularly likely to act or dress in this way, and real security professionals know this. The circus that surrounds this sort of thing has only one purpose, and that is to make money for people who make their living selling fear.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/26/2009 - 08:40 am.

    I usually ignore Kersten opinions in the Strib, but went back and read her weekend piece after reading this article. Of course she doesn’t deal with any of the facts of the case as this author does. To her it shows how “victimization” is used to “shake down” the airline. To Kersten, the judge was “arrogantly dismissive of law-enforcement realities”.

    I always felt ambivlent about this case in the same way the author was, but seeing the facts explained shows the level of overreaction by the passenger and the cops and the poor reporting at the time of the event.

    To Kersten and her friends, this was the Imams’ fault because of the “cancer” of extremist Islamic ideology. I’m not a fan of that ideology but I find that extremist ideology is found within most religious traditions. Should I call the police because I fear that Kersten is planning to blow up the federal building or kill an abortion doctor? I’m sure she shares many opionions with Timothy McVie and the violent abortion protesters. How do I know she’s not planning something violent. And in her world the fault for the overreaction would not be mine but hers for expressing her opinion and to other conservative Christians for espousing views that others use to justify violence. And besides, with that old fashioned hair cut of hers, she just looks suspicious……

  5. Submitted by Bill Krause on 10/26/2009 - 09:05 am.

    I wonder how many lies about Katherine Kersten have originated at Minnpost.

  6. Submitted by David Hanners on 10/26/2009 - 09:24 am.

    Interesting post, but while I can understand you linking to your former employer, Eric, I think doing so gives short shrift to the coverage in the Pioneer Press, which was more extensive over the course of the litigation. In fact, we published an article on July 13, 2008 — more than a year ago — that debunked virtually all of the myths that had become accepted as gospel about what went on at MSP that night. And our article on the settlement last week (http://www.twincities.com/ci_13605229?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com) was the only one anywhere that quoted the 3M sales rep who wrote the note that sparked the whole thing. His money quote: “When they took them off the plane, I was kind of surprised. From what I saw, I don’t think that would warrant being taken off the plane. I wasn’t concerned in what I saw, in and of itself.”

  7. Submitted by Susan Rego on 10/26/2009 - 10:01 am.

    I happened to be in a position to listen to and watch Fox News all day on the day the media announced the settlement of this case.

    Every time it was mentioned, their spin was that the six imams received no apology, and they didn’t even say that the imams received compensation for the wrong that was done to them.

    BTW, Michele Bachmann has, in several radio interviews, spread the same lies about the case listed above.

  8. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 10/26/2009 - 10:04 am.

    All I remember of this case was that people of a certain political bent immediately became hysterical, and not enough of the rest of us called them out on it in real time.

    The modern Republican party is a party based on fear of the “other.” If not Muslims, then homosexuals. If not homosexuals, then liberals. If not liberals, then etc.

    As this country grows bigger, the Republicans get smaller, and smaller.

  9. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/26/2009 - 10:28 am.

    I would like Bill Krause to list some of the “lies” about Katherine Kersten that have originated here. I imagine that like all right wing zealots, innuendo suffices for proof.

  10. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 10/26/2009 - 11:24 am.

    A couple of things are missing from this analysis. 1) The initial inclusion of “John Does” in the suit, and 2) the involvement of the insurer.

    It’s too bad there wasn’t a trial. I would want to know just how big these men were. Based on the slack when I buckle up, wouldn’t you have to have a 45+ inch waist to need an extender? I would also want to know whether they prayed prior to their inbound flight, without incident.

    Cops get things wrong, airlines get things wrong. But let’s not forget that judges can get things wrong, too, especially when they are not the trier of fact and are ruling in the “light most favorable” to the plaintiff. To view Judge Montgomery as the omniscient final word could be an example of…as a wise man once said…confirmation bias.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/26/2009 - 11:45 am.

    “As you review the facts of the case, ask yourself which of the “suspicious” actions of the imams would have been suspicious if they had not been Muslims.”

    That is not the right question.

    The proper way to frame reasoned consideration of this incident is, if after more than 10 years of unrelenting, high profile acts of terrorism, would the same treatment have been meted out to a group of Mennonites under the same circumstances.

    It’s just as easy for people eager to discredit America to justify their biases as it is for American xenophobes, and as Eric has demonstrated, we only have a synopsis of the evidence the judge had to consider; but let’s look at what we have.

    The judge’s ruling was based upon years of investigation; hundreds of documents. We don’t know how much of the exculpatory evidence the authorities had at the time; we do know, however, that in addition to MAC cops, deputy US Marshals and FBI agents were involved…at least 15 law enforcement officers all totaled.

    I’ve not seen any mention that even 1 of them suggested anyone was “over reacting” at the time.

    Eric notes that the FBI had been invited to give a presentation by the imam federation…would any other religious group have reason to include federal agents in its gatherings? Does not this invitation suggest that the imam federation is aware that the world wide terrorism being conducted in Mohammad’s name has cast suspicion upon Muslims?

    If so, why would the imams decide it was a good idea to make a spectacle of themselves prior to boarding? I fly an average of 150,000 miles a year, and have *never* seen anyone prostrate themselves and pray loudly at the gate. Never. These fellows had been in one and others company continuously, why had some not joined the others in prayer before arriving at the airport?

    The judge’s comments regarding the public display leave me speechless… “Similar behavior by Russian Orthodox priests or Franciscan monks would likely not have elicited this response.”…what?

    Do I really have to point out the fallacies contained in that statement? I’ll spare the thoughtful reader the implied insult to their intelligence.

    Eric says that three of the imams had changed from their original return flight and so had booked what looked like a one-way ticket home, and that three of the imams did not check bags.

    Are these the same three in both instances?

    The seat belt extenders have been a crucial component to the discussion. But the lack of details again leave the thoughtful reader scratching his/her head considering the judge’s comments …”It is difficult to understand what danger a seatbelt extension poses that is not also posed by a sturdy belt with a large buckle.”

    No argument there, but were any of the imams wearing belts of any sort, or were they dressed in the loose fitting clothes often worn by Muslim clerics?

    Again noting my own considerable travel I have to say I’ve never seen anyone use a seat belt extender; I had never even heard of them before this incident…and I’ve often had the experience of being seated with some very large people.

    Anyone that would find a normal airplane seat belt lacking could only be described as not just “large”, but obese in the extreme.

    Finally, in considering the ruling, and Eric’s analysis, most importantly we cannot dismiss the purported conversation among the imams.

    The passengers said they heard talk of Saddam Hussein, U.S. involvement in Iraq, and curses about the United States. Now I admit that these sorts of comments are probably commonly expressed by people that have no thought of blowing up planes; it’s almost boiler plate to some members of the scary smart, reality based community, but again this transpired at an airport gate.
    Given the circumstances, I find the judges commentary to be beyond belief.

    “Commenting on current events, and even criticizing governmental policy is protected speech under the First Amendment. It cannot be taken a crime and should not be used as probable cause for an arrest.”

    I would challenge anyone that, *given all of the other circumstances*, does not detect bias in that statement to give it whirl sometime.

    Really.

    Next time you are flying somewhere, fall to your knees and loudly praise Allah and proclaim Mohammad his prophet; then strike up a lively conversation with your companions. Reflect upon the plight of the poor Taliban and curse our troops to hell.

    Remember, if you’re a native Minnesotan, you’re probably not even Muslim; no one will take any notice at all…

    Enjoy your flight.

    Judge Montgomery’s unique perspective not-with-standing, I’m not qualified to know if the actions of law enforcement were justifiable under criminal law, but I have no doubt that the law of common sense leaves the flying imams and their enablers precious little credibility.

  12. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 10/26/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    “Plaintiffs’ Middle Eastern descent does not change the analysis. Similar behavior by Russian Orthodox priests or Franciscan monks would likely not have elicited this response.”

    I dunno. I see a bunch of Orthodox priest and/or Franciscan monks kneeling down in the direction of Mecca, chanting loudly in Arabic, including chants of “Allah, Allah,” I’m going to get very suspicious. I don’t know a lot of either, but I would have thought that they don’t actually do that.

  13. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 10/26/2009 - 12:22 pm.

    Tom Swift is only paying attention to the issue of reasonable suspicion — whether it was okay to ask questions, which is not what the judge was determining. He misses what probably was the key basis of the fault provoking the settlement — arrests lacking evidence to support probable cause.
    Arrests lacking evidence to support probable cause is a greater danger of “big government” than nearly all of the other complaints of such that Tom writes about on this site.

  14. Submitted by Bill Krause on 10/26/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    For Bill Schletzer

    from just this comment thread.

    1. “Wondering how many of these lies about the Imams (i.e. they purchased one-way tickets) were originated with Katherine Kersten at the Strib? ”

    Suggestion that Kersten fabricated lies about the Imams originating at Minnpost.

    Does Rob Levine have any proof that Kirsten originated any lies about the Imams? Why didn’t Bill Schletzer ask Mr. Levine about “innuendo suffices for proof”.

  15. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/26/2009 - 12:42 pm.

    I’m a liberal guy and have no time for the nasty and simplistic thinking of people in today’s right-wing media, including Katherine Kersten. And here’s what I think:

    6 Arabic guys came into an airport, and before boarding got down on the floor in front of all the passengers and make a big public display of fundamentalist Islam.

    If I’m a pilot, they’re not getting on my plane. I’m sorry guys, but we’re not going to pretend we’re in some other world where 9/11/01 never happened, and we’re not going to take off with a plane full of frightened people just to indulge your particular spin on religion. Either behave like civilized people in touch with reality, or stay home.

  16. Submitted by Matthew Hauck on 10/26/2009 - 01:18 pm.

    Jim:
    What??? You realize that while all fundamentalist Muslims pray to Mecca 5 times a day, not all Muslims who pray to Mecca 5 times a day are fundamentalist Muslims, right? In fact, the majority of observant Muslims are not fundamentalist. The events of 9/11 do not limit the guarantees of the first amendment regarding the free expression of religion. The basic point here is that they were arrested without probable cause, and that the suspicions were unfounded. Also, I guarentee you that a Muslim terrorist would put on as LITTLE show as possible.

  17. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/26/2009 - 01:42 pm.

    What a contrast between Mr. Black’s review versus what Ms. Kersten at StarTribune offered in her opinion piece. Mr. Black reviewed evidence. Ms. Kersten recounted accusations that Judge Montgomery dismissed in her review, but Ms. Kersten insisted on reasserting the debunked accusations as though the dismissals were irrelevant.

    Glad that Mr. Black is still getting ink stains, especially on the more complicated stories. Too bad that some people cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence. Saw a lot of that surrounding the Minnesota election and subsequent court battles for US senator as well.

  18. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/26/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    Ordinary people do not have the responsibilty to educate themselves on the belief systems of every religion, cult, and sect in the world so as not put off by a display which on the surface seems pretty alarming.

    It is however our reponsibility to behave in a way that doesn’t frighten our fellow passengers or give the crew cause for concern.

    I dont’ get to “just be myself” while boarding a plane. It’s a special circumstance, calling for restrictions on behavior. I understand the reasons for this and I accept these restrictions. It’s one cost of living in a civilized society.

  19. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/26/2009 - 01:45 pm.

    Mr. Hughs apparently does not embrace the First Amendment to our Constitution. I bet the Imams do.

    If so, who’s the more patriotic? Someone who denies religious freedom, or those who embrace it and practice it?

  20. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/26/2009 - 01:49 pm.

    When I read comments like those of Jim Hughes I wonder if he has any idea of all the murder and mayhem has been done in this world in the name of Christianity.

    I imagine he would expect to not be held accountable for all the misery inflicted on native Americans, africans, asians and many others in the name of what we/he may call civilization and religion. Praying is an offense against civilization?

    If we aren’t going to pretend that 9/11 never happened, let’s not pretend that the Belgian Congo never happened or the crusades or the inquisition or atrocities too numerous to mention throughout history and around the world. When we wonder why so many hate America, let’s not pretend that we didn’t try to impose oppresive regimes on Viet Nam, Iran, most of South America and Africa.

    Jim, if you can’t handle the real face of our civilization then maybe you should stay home.

  21. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/26/2009 - 02:00 pm.

    I wonder if Jim has ever tried to explain common sense to his liberal friends before.

    If not, I’m wondering if he finds this experience as enlightening as I find it confirming.

  22. Submitted by Bill Krause on 10/26/2009 - 02:22 pm.

    Yes, I’m sure scores of airline passengers are deeply concerned about the Belgian Congo when standing in line to go through security.

    Or maybe they’re worried that groups of passengers will don chain mail, genuflect, and then demand the flight turn to Jerusalem.

  23. Submitted by Michael Zalar on 10/26/2009 - 02:47 pm.

    I just want to suggest an alternate scenario:
    Instead of Muslims, lets make it fundementalist Christians who had been attending the conference. They decide to pray at the airport prior to their flight – maybe with a person leading them in prayer. (If I wanted to be real cute, I’d make them Roman Catholics and the prayers in Latin, but that would be a bit much).
    Seating and so on pretty much the same.
    They discuss abortion, and as fundementalist find the American laws to be wholly immoral and suggest they are in sympathy with abortion clinic bombers.

    Would it be right to have them removed from the plane? Detained for six hours..?

  24. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/26/2009 - 03:03 pm.

    The sergeant on duty that day should not have allowed the officer to arrest these imams without any evidence of a crime or intended crime, but perhaps was influenced by the ever-so-zealous Department of Homeland Security and the ever-present propaganda about Muslims (all two million of them, apparently) are “terrorists,” and should be hunted down, or so I am told by some acquaintances).

    Perhaps the judiciary, in the person of Judge Montgomery and others who are truly conversant with the Constitution, will yet be able to save our civil rights.

  25. Submitted by Brent Lorentz on 10/26/2009 - 03:03 pm.

    Interesting article and comments thus far. A couple of thoughts:

    First, Mr. Black, you have the legal standard wrong. Judge Montgomery had to consider the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, which in this case was the Plaintiffs, not Defendants. This means that Judge Montgomery’s comments should not be construed as considering the Defendants’ best case. From a purely legal perspective, Judge Montgomery merely concluded that there were enough facts in favor of the plaintiffs that, if proven true, could support a verdict for the plaintiffs.

    Second, for those commenters relying so heavily on freedom of religion, it is important to note that no rights (not even the Bill of Rights) are absolute. There are qualifications on freedom of speech (e.g., can’t incite violence), freedom of religion (e.g., no human sacrifice), and the right to bear arms (that one requires no further explanation). All constitutional rights are balanced against the potential harms that could result, its just that some rights are much heavier than others.

    And third, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the alternative here. What if something terrible had happened on the plane and it had come to light that these suspicions were made known to the airline. I’m not saying the likelihood of terrorism was high in this instant, but what is the appropriate barometer when a possible (albeit unlikely) outcome is a catastrophic loss of life?

  26. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/26/2009 - 03:17 pm.

    “They discuss abortion, and as fundementalist [sic] find the American laws to be wholly immoral and suggest they are in sympathy with abortion clinic bombers.”

    “Would it be right to have them removed from the plane?”

    If the plane was also carrying a contingent to or from an abortion trade show….absolutely.

    But unless you’re a member of the scary smart, reality based community, both scenarios completely fail the common sense test.

  27. Submitted by Eric Black on 10/26/2009 - 03:41 pm.

    Thanks to all for a lively and interesting discussion.
    Brent Lorentz, in comment #25, you are correct and my original paragraph was wrong. The judge was required to take the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, in this case, the imams. I’ve corrected the post so it now reads that way. Thanks.
    There seemed to be only one somewhat important fact in dispute, whether the imams had been talking about Saddam Hussein and cursing the U.S. for its Iraq policy. But the judge also decided that it didn’t matter. The original post had that right.
    In reflecting on the exchanges so far, it strikes me that the key to the judge’s ruling — and the key difference between the way my friend and former colleague Katherine Kersten read the judge and the way I did — comes down to the issue of whether the judge has focused on the correct question.
    To Judge Montgomery, the key question seemed to be “were the imams arrested (she concluded that they were) and did the police have probable cause to make an arrest?”
    No one, including Kersten, has argued that the officers had made a proper analysis/investigation of that question and concluded that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. Those who don’t like the settlement or don’t like the judge’s ruling are mostly skipping past that question and arguing that in a post-9/11 world, you can’t take any chances.
    As I tried to say in my post, I have sympathy for that sense of caution.
    But as I also tried to say, officers who are empowered to make arrests are not authorized to disregard the probable cause standard.
    In retrospect (and I recognize that part of Kersten’s complaint is that the judge had the benefit of retrospect while the officers had to deal with the situation on the spot), the officers probably could have removed the imams from the flight without crossing the line into an arrest, and that would have been a very different situation, legally, after the fact.
    But perhaps, even in that scenario, the airline would have faced a discrimination lawsuit for the original decision to deny service to the imams.

  28. Submitted by C. Egelhoff on 10/26/2009 - 04:18 pm.

    Thanks for the very interesting and useful article. It was especially helpful to have the details about Judge Montgomery’s ruling. It seems that justice has been served well.

    Claudia Egelhoff

  29. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 10/26/2009 - 04:35 pm.

    Regarding Kersten and most of the reporting on this subject: People believe what they want to believe.

    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/lighter-than-air/

    Thanks for giving us something better, Eric.

  30. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 10/26/2009 - 07:19 pm.

    Mr. Swift, I’m surprised that you haven’t seen seat-belt extenders. I fly about 50-60,000 actual miles a year and have even seen them left on my seat, in addition to them being used by people who should have been required to buy two seats, but I digress. I have also seen Muslims praying in the airport near the gate as well as chanting versus from the Koran while seated on the airplane, and not just in the Middle East.

    To all: The basis of this country and what we stand for is our constitution and rule of law. Anytime we allow ourselves to violate the very basis of our freedom and the reason for the existence of this country, not only have we allowed the terrorists to gain ground, but we have ceded our rights to the government and become no different than those in foreign countries who condemn all Americans based on the horrendous actions of a very minute few (Think Abu Ghraib.) To truly pay the price for freedom is for us to accept the risk that we may die in a terrorist attack in exchange for living in a free society as opposed to a police state. If you want to live in a society that puts eliminating terrorists ahead of freedoms, I suggest you move to Communist China where their response to suspected terrorists is mass execution without trial. Of course if you do that you may one day find yourself to be one of those “suspected terrorists.”

    And before anyone bothers to tell me “I’m not doing anything wrong so I don’t need to worry about the government” I’ll just remind you of all the people who died in the Gulags of Russia and Death Camps of Germany who were fully in support of purging “traitors” until it was their turn to pay the price, despite never having committed a crime.

  31. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/26/2009 - 08:26 pm.

    This discusssion quickly becomes more superheated than the surface of the sun.

    I think it’s clear that freedom of religion in this country remains solidly guaranteed. Obviously no one is suggesting these men be imprisoned or shot. Their arrest wasn’t justified. I interact with Muslims everyday and I accept them completely, into my city and my society. I dont’ want to see them disrespected in any way.

    There is only one issue, and that is: restrictions on behavior when you’re about to get on a plane, due to some very bad things that have happened.

    I can go onstage in a comedy club and tell endless jokes about airline hijackings, terroristic acts or concealed bombs. I can’t say the same things while standing in line to board a plane, because it would scare people, and there’s no time to sort it out. Has my Freedom of Comedy been violated?

  32. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/26/2009 - 09:40 pm.

    From any number of the comments preceding this one. I feel that I can safely say that we believe the facts our politics tell us to believe.

    The fact that the comment threads on blogs tend to be pretty ideological is not exactly revelatory.

  33. Submitted by Paul Scott on 10/27/2009 - 09:59 am.

    Seems to me like the entire experience was good for democracy, our understanding of the system of justice in this country and our ongoing conversation about how we make our way in the post 9/11 US.

    But I also agree that it’s sort of convenient to sound the alarm because someone is praying towards Mecca. If you have seen the video of M. Atta passing through my old gate in Portland ME, perhaps one of the most conservative, small town, ethnically homogenous airports in the country, he looks like he was headed for the disco.

  34. Submitted by Rosie Ahmed on 10/27/2009 - 12:34 pm.

    I am American muslim descendant of slaves. Jim Hughes statement that the Imams who chose to pray were making a public display of fundamentalist Islam is untrue. One of the Pillars of our faith is making the 5 daily prayers. It is enjoined on all muslims at a stated time and has nothing to do with being an Islamic fundamentalist.As far as the Imams who chose to perform their religious obligations(Prayer at the stated time)being uncivilized and not in touch with reality is also an untrue statement.If I choose to perform my prayers before boarding an airplane, why should I stay home? It is my constitutional right to perform my prayers wherever I so choose and not be arrested and removed from my flight simply because some people do not understand my religion.the Imams were not saying Allah,Allah.When Muslims perform prayers,the Imam or the person leading the prayers says Allahu Akbar which in Arabic means God is Great to signify to the people who are following that it is time to change the prayer position.As far as the Imams voicing support for Sadaam Hussein, I know that is not true.Sadaam Hussein was the president of the Baath Party whose Agenda was to rid the continent of Arabia of the religion of AL-Islam(The Peace).It is well-known in the Muslim
    Community that Sadaam Hussein was only Muslim when it was convenient for him.We muslims care about Air Safety because we and our family and friends also fly. We care about the safety and lives of everyone. We only ask that we are afforded the rights that our constitution gives

  35. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/27/2009 - 02:00 pm.

    What I should have said was that they were making what APPEARED to be a public display of fundamentalist Islam.

    The average person in this country doesn’t have much knowledge of Islam and that will be slow to change. The only thing wrong with what those 6 men did is that they made no allowance for where they actually were, and how their behavior would be perceived by the other people getting on that flight. I assume they didn’t intend to scare those people, but that’s what happened.

    As prevous posters have pointed out, our constitutionally guaranteed rights are all subject to certain restrictions based on time, place and context. For example, the right to free speech doesn’t extend to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, or allow me to shout political slogans outside someone’s window at night.

    These 6 men didn’t intend to create fear, but did so accidentally. Other people have had similarly bad experiences by, for example, making inappropriate jokes as they were about to board.

  36. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/27/2009 - 03:46 pm.

    Mr Lonrenz, who i suspect is an attorney, states “Judge Montgomery had to consider the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, which in this case was the Plaintiffs, not Defendants…. ”

    I am not a lawyer. However, if there is no probable cause, and as much admitted by the law enforcement, how much lower can the judge set the bar for the Defendant?

    If there was even a scintilla of probable cause their case would have been thrown out, because even under the most favorable light, the system is set up to give law enforcement the greatest benefit of the doubt.

    Seondly Mr. Lorenz states “for those commenters relying so heavily on freedom of religion”. It is not as if these guys were performing some kind of Santeria ritual out there. Something that could have been construed in the most urgent of situations as a threat. These guys were just praying.

    Finally Mr. Lorenz asks “what is the appropriate barometer” ? How about probable cause ? How low must the threshold be for equal protection in this country. Or are you Mr Lorenz stating that equal protection is only a theory for the rest of us.

  37. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/27/2009 - 04:05 pm.

    People like Thomas Swift tell the rest of us to get some reality. And then he regurgitates half of Katherine Kersten’s lies in his statement.

    Supposedly for people like KK and i presume Thomas Swift, people can bring guns outside Obama’s rallies/events. We are to ignore the fact that the last few presidents were targeted for assassination by angry white men/women carrying guns near a president. Because it is after all their constitutional right.

    However we are supposed to toss all due process when it comes to a bunch of fat imams praying at the entrance.

  38. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/27/2009 - 04:36 pm.

    Protesting outside an abortion clinic, meets your definition of “public display of fundamentalism”. And if i recall there have been more than a few doctors who have been targeted.

    How many conservatives will support banning protests outside abortion clinics and for that matter any pro-life protests ?

  39. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/27/2009 - 09:05 pm.

    “The nervousness was understandable…”

    You’re kidding right? This was Nov. 20 2006 for pete’s sake! Long after most of us had figured out that all those terror alerts were politically motivated BS. Cheney had long since stopped ordering them. (They were no longer needed after the 2004 and 2006 elections.) Had it been Nov. 20, 2001 maybe. The person who wrote that note was a paranoid, bigoted fool. Its the same mindset that has the state investigating a local Muslim charter school. Someday maybe folks will wake up and realize that the whole country, most importantly a generation of young people, have been terrorized not by actual enemies of this country but by politicians for the sole purpose of advancing their narrow political interests. That’s a story you should be writing.

  40. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/28/2009 - 04:10 pm.

    A good piece of research and reporting, as usual.

    It seems clear that — if all the facts reported here were readily available to the enforcement officers involved — it was a bad call to arrest these persons. If these facts were not available to them, not so much.

    While the discussion focuses on the legal rights of the imams, attention should also be focused on their behavior which was, at very least, uncaring of those around them. I think their damages should be modified by their contribution to the problem by their behavior.

    As for me, if I had been at that boarding place and on that plane, and had witnessed the things observed by the passengers, I would have asked to get off the plane: Let them blow it up if they wanted to. Or maybe I would have walked up to one and asked point blank if they were going to crash it.

    But then, I don’t use the airlines anyway — I can drive to Chicago in about the same time as it takes to deal with parking, checking in, boarding, flying, and getting out of the airport only to drive for another half hour after I get there. Maybe for Hawaii, but I can’t afford to go there.

  41. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/30/2009 - 04:05 pm.

    “Protesting outside an abortion clinic, meets your definition of “public display of fundamentalism”.

    Yes it does, and it’s allowed. But we’re not talking about what you can do on a street corner. We’re talking about what you can do when you’re about to get on an airplane.

  42. Submitted by Ahmed Tharwat on 11/01/2009 - 11:30 am.

    http://www.ahmediatv.com/2009/04/clash-of-stupidity.html

    The removal and questioning of six Moslem clerics from a Twin Cities’ flight became a front-page, headline news story with several clashing views. From a civil liberties point of view, those imams’ freedom of worship was taken away and they were singled out and publicly humiliated because of either their religious customs, the way they looked, or the use of their native language. From the view of the Americans involved, widely known for their ethnocentric and Islamic-phobic tendencies, the imams “seemed angry,” as a passenger explained in a police statement. The patriotic passenger continued, “The men then chanted ‘Allah, Allah, Allah.’ “They spoke Arabic again.”
    We have been fighting in Moslem countries for years, we should know by now that Moslem prayer is always in Arabic regardless if any terrorist tendency, and prayers require invoking the phrase “Allahu Akbar’(God is the Greatest) numerous times. Colloquial Arabic is likewise full of expressions like “Inshahallah” (god-willing) and “mashallah” (what god wishes), which are not normally preambles for suicidal acts. Besides, we really are supposed to be a little jolly when speaking with God; he is our creator after all. It does not really matter to me if overzealous passengers or paranoid US Air pilots demonstrated their cultural incompetence on board. But what truly bothers me about this incident is that it appears to me not a clash of civilization or culture, but a clash of stupidity.
    ________________________________________
    I appreciate the imams trust in American public judgment and prudence. But from the common sense view, the way those imams behaved and looked at the airport is part of the clash. Any outraged Moslems should be aware that in a post 9/11 Islamic-phobic country, Moslems with huge untrimmed beards should just not pray in the boarding area at an airport. Period. I certainly understand that as Moslems we should be the ones who are extremely cautious about traveling by air with paranoid Americans. As for me, I don’t really care what the First Amendment says or entitles you to, in a post 9/11 Islamic-phobic era, I do not care if the time of prayer was called or not. According to my only imam (my dad), when traveling, a Moslem can always pray all five daily prayers in the comforts of home upon arrival. The prophet followed this guideline even though he was among his own devoted followers, not a suspicious and paranoid airport crowd. You just cannot display that degree of poor judgment as a Moslem, let alone as an imam, whom other Moslems expect to exhibit social prudence. This is an era in which we can assume that Moslems are profiled, some have their phones monitored, and others may be followed or watched when they are praying at mosques, all in the interest of the safety of the flying public. What are you thinking when you pray at the airport itself! I understand that getting drunk at an airport bar before boarding would have been less threatening to lots of passengers. What happened at the airport to those six imams is not a lack of legal rights and a First Amendment issue, this is a lack of common sense and poor judgment issue. Those imams are supposedly teaching us through sermons at every Friday prayer how to behave as a Moslem living in a hostile post 9/11 era. Those six imams biggest blunder was not just praying together at the airport but being there together. Bushra Khan, spokeswoman for CAIR’s Arizona chapter, said, “All these men did was pray, . . . and that scares some people.” Please count me in; I would be too, but not because this type of behavior predisposes a terrorist tendency, but rather a pertinacity of stupidity tendency. In this post 9/11 era, when I travel, I am always clean shaven; I leave my prayer rug and my nail clippers at home along with my feta cheese and cans of fava beans.. I don’t even pray at a mosque, let alone at the airport. My biggest concern is not connecting with god Almighty at the airport, but connecting with my flight. I stay quietly in the waiting area, watching CNN and Fox network news blasting fair and balanced coverage of Moslems around the world. I don’t ask for special “halal” meals on the flight, but just quietly fish out any offending pork that may have found its way into my entrée. And when they ask me to take my shoes off at the airport; I understand it is time for security check and definitely it’s not the time for prayer.

    Ahmed Tharwat/ Host and producer
    BelAhdan
    Arab American TV show
    Airs on Public TV at 10:30pm
    http://www.belahdan.com

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