Muslim men sue Alaska Airlines for being removed from flight over Arabic texts

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Two black Muslim men have sued Alaska Airlines for discrimination after they said the airline removed them from a flight following another passenger’s complaint about Arabic text messages and would not allow them to travel together on modified flights .

Lawyers for the Washington State Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who first made the incident public in December 2020, filed the lawsuit in federal court on August 2. The group said in a statement that the lawsuit alleges federal and state violation. men’s civil rights as paying passengers on the flight.

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The situation unfolded on February 17, 2020, when Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, both US citizens born in Sudan, were in first class waiting to fly from Seattle to San Francisco. The men, colleagues at a medical transportation company, planned to buy work vehicles and drive them back to Washington state, where they both lived.

As they waited to take off, according to the complaint, they had conversations in Arabic, and Dirar, now 62, messaged a friend in a conversation that included emoji and Arabic text. A passenger seated next to Dirar was alarmed by the text messages, grabbed his bag and told the flight attendant he was not going to stay on the plane.

Calling the passenger’s complaint “unsubstantiated and refuted,” the lawsuit says the airline’s employees chose to “interestedly discriminate against [the men] on the basis of their perceived religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienation and national origin using the plaintiffs as scapegoats in an admittedly unwarranted and unnecessary display of security theatre. »

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According to the lawsuit, an Alaska Airlines official told Dirar and Elamin to get off the plane. Once they complied, he explained that one of them had been reported for sending “inappropriate” text messages. Employees humiliated them in front of other passengers, lawsuit says, forced them to undergo more security measures even after telling police the men posed no threat and would not let them fly together on modified flights .

Port of Seattle Police said in a report that the captain ordered the toilet tanks emptied after Elamin, now 47, used the bathroom, and said the airline asked a police dog to check luggage for explosives.

Several of these actions took place even after Dirar offered his phone to the airline manager, who reviewed and translated the text messages in question and deemed them “completely harmless”, according to the complaint.

According to the police report, part of the text string from 2018 included the numbers “911”. The men’s lawyer said it was a joke by Dirar’s friend, who said it was his wife’s phone number because his calls were to be ‘answered anyhow’. urgency and taken seriously”. An exchange on the day of the flight included a rocket emoji in response to positive comments on the photos. The police report said the emoji – which Dirar removed – were meant to positively describe an image like “the bomb”.

“Dirar said there was no ill will or intent,” the police report said.

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The police report said an official reported the situation to be a misunderstanding with “no threats of any kind” and that police were no longer needed. The same official later said the passengers exited the plane and were screened again “to show them that Alaska Airlines was concerned about their safety and was taking the incident seriously.”

The men said they saw some of the other passengers who were to be re-screened “looking at them and looking visibly agitated and scared, with some passengers swearing and expressing anger,” the suit reads. Everyone except Dirar and Elamin was allowed to return.

In a statement, the airline said it “strictly prohibits discrimination” and takes such complaints seriously.

“Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe every day, and that includes complying with federal regulations on investigating passenger safety reports,” the statement said. “As this matter remains an ongoing litigation, we are unable to share any further comments or details at this time.”

Lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and asks that airline be forced to provide racial and religious sensitivity training to employees and establish culturally sensitive protocols and procedures when dealing with complaints passengers; and that the company be prohibited from discriminating against passengers and customers based on religion, race, color or other traits.

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Luis Segura, a civil rights lawyer with the council, said in an email that previous attempts to contact the airline had yielded no response despite promising an internal investigation.

“The discrimination of these men by Alaska Airlines not only disrupted their business travel, but also caused them severe and lasting emotional distress and immense pressure to avoid the attention of others and behave in ways that concealed their identities. ethnic and religious backgrounds when they fly,” the council said in its statement.

In the statement, Dirar said he would pursue legal proceedings as he did not want other passengers to have the same experience.

“When we traveled that day, we weren’t treated the same as other people, and that made me feel like I wasn’t equal to other people,” he said. “I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim.”