Amy Goodman interviews two of the imams. Democracy Now

AMY GOODMAN: The president of the organization, Omar Shahin, was one of the six imams removed from the plane. He joins me here in the studio in New York, along with Ahmad Shqeirat, an imam at the Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona, who was also removed from the plane. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!.


IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off by telling us what happened that day? You were just coming from this conference in Minneapolis and went to the airport?

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Actually, after we finished our conference on Monday, November 20th, and that’s conference for North American Imams Federation, where over 150 imams were there to discuss how to build more bridges with non-Muslims, how to be open-minded imams. And Congressman Keith Ellison was one of the attendees of this conference. We left the conference hotel to the airport, six of us, because we — you know, we invited all imams from all over. So, we went and got our boarding pass, as usual. And they promoted me to first class, because I’m an elite member.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an elite member at US Airways.

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: With US Airways. Then we went through the security, as normal. Then we went to the waiting area, waiting for our flight. And by then, the sunset time, as Muslims, we pray five times a day, so we decided — three of us decided to pray that time. Why not six of us? In order to avoid any more attention from people. We picked a very quiet area. We did not bother anybody. We did our prayer in a very quiet lower voice.

Then, after that, we waited ’til they called us according to our zones. I went first. We went to the airplane individually, not together. I sat in my place, first row, first class, which is suspicious also. After that, I found out that they are suspicious of this, too. We noticed that there was a delay in the flight. The airplane is not taking off for almost 45 to one hour.

During that time, I moved from my seat, and I went to Imam Marwan Sadeddin — he’s a blind guy — offering him my seat, because he’s a blind old guy. He was very tired. So, he said, “Thank you, Imam Shahin. I don’t want — you, being tired for the last three days, go back to your seat, relax and enjoy it.” I went back to my seat, and I wait. Even the passengers were asking, “What’s going on? Why?” I said, “I have no clue.” I did not know that time that we were the problem.

Then, after that, we noticed that the policemen showed up, two of them, to the plane. And they left the plane. Then increasing numbers of policemen showed up and went to the end of the plane, and they start removing the imams one by one from their seats. We did not argue with the policemen. We just complied totally and fully.

AMY GOODMAN: What did the policemen say to you?

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: He did not say anything. The minute — me, personally, the minute I saw the policemen guiding all these imams, taking off all these imams, I know that I am included. So even they did not say anything, I said I’m sure that I am included, and I moved from my seat.

We complied totally with the police, cooperated, fully cooperated, because we don’t want to do anything wrong. So they took us to the jet way of the plane, and they asked us to stand there for 45 minutes, don’t talk, don’t do this, don’t answer phone, don’t do any phone calls. And I asked them, “Please, just give me one minute to say one statement,” because I want to tell them that we notified the FBI in charge and police department of Minneapolis that we have this conference, so traveling together is not a strange thing. But they did not allow me to say this statement. Even one of the policemen, he said, “If you keep asking us this, I am going to arrest you.” Then, I have no other option but to keep silent.

Then, after that, they handcuffed us one by one, and they took us to the police department in the airport. And this is — up to now, I cannot forget the passengers’ eyes were looking at us when they handcuffed us and took us to the police department.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Imam Shqeirat, you were at back of the plane?


AMY GOODMAN: So you were sitting, Imam Shahin, in the first class.

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: First class.

AMY GOODMAN: Then there were two imams in the middle of the plane. And then, two of you were at the back. At the back, who was it that complained?

IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT: We really did not know that there was a complaint. We just noticed the delay in the flight. It seems I was tired, and I got a nap. I woke up maybe after half an hour. I thought I saw the plane still on the ground. I thought we already arrived to Phoenix, so I thought it must be it was a very comfortable flight. So I asked my neighbor. He said, “No, we did not depart yet.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know,” because there is — then the pilot talked to us. And he said, “Excuse us, but we are doing some paperwork, and the computer turned off or down. So, we’re going to be on our way soon.”

After finishing that, I started noticing the police cars arrived, and yeah, two police officers came into the plane, walked from the front to the end without talking to anybody, even without looking at us. Then they stayed a few minutes in the back. Then they went. They left.

After they left, Imam Omar moved from the seat from the front and came to me, said, “Did they talk to you?” I said, “No, nobody talked to me.”

So, after a few minutes, they came back again with more officers. A few of them stood in the front. The rest of them came back and just told us, “You two gentlemen, please step out and walk to the front.” So we did what they told us. And they did this with all imams ’til they took all of us off the plane in front of all the passengers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about an article that appeared in the Washington Times yesterday. The article was headlined, “How the Imams Terrorized an Airliner.” It begins like this, quote, “Muslim religious leaders removed from a Minnesota flight last week exhibited behavior associated with a security probe by terrorists and were not merely engaged in prayers, according to witnesses, police reports and aviation security officials.” The article goes on to quote a series of unnamed sources, and then it states, quote, “Passengers and flight attendants told law enforcement officials the imams switched from their assigned seats to a pattern associated with the September 11th terrorist attacks and also found in probes of US security since the attacks: two in the front row first class, two in the middle of the plane on the exit aisle, and two in the rear of the cabin.”

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: That’s completely wrong. I am the only person in first class, and we took — or we sat in the seats they assigned to us, except one of the imams, he is blind. He asked nicely the gentleman next to Imam Mahmoud Sulaiman to switch his place, because this imam, Marwan Sadeddin, he’s blind, and he needs help. This is the only things happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had gone back to ask if he wanted to switch with you?

IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Wanted to switch with my seat.


IMAM OMAR SHAHIN: Yes, for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was blind. But he said no.


Full interview: Democracy Now