Flying While Brown

Muslim cleric Aslam Abdullah was the last passenger to board an afternoon Southwest flight from Las Vegas to suburban L.A. on Friday, May 30.

He was also the first passenger off —before the plane ever left the ground.

Abdullah, 47, edits two national Islamic newspapers, The Minaret, based in L.A., and The Muslim Observer, based in Detroit. A few weeks earlier he had interviewed FBI director Robert Mueller about improving relations between the agency and Muslims. He was in Las Vegas to deliver a sermon on post-9/11 racial tolerance and was rushing back to Ontario for an afternoon meeting.

He had just made his way to the back of the full plane and buckled himself into the only remaining seat when he was summoned. “All of a sudden my name was announced twice on the PA,” Abdullah recalled. “‘Please come to the front.’”

As Abdullah walked up the aisle, the plane was quiet. He felt all eyes upon him, taking in his business suit, full beard, brown skin and Muslim name. “I was trying to erase those looks,” he said. “I was embarrassed and humiliated.”

At the front of the plane, a Southwest employee told Abdullah that he had not cleared security and had to leave the plane. Abdullah bristled. Before boarding he had not only passed through the same security checkpoints as every other passenger but had also answered the gate agent’s inquiry about his birthdate. “I thought about resisting, saying it was ridiculous and that I would not leave the plane,” said Abdullah, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in India. “But I thought if I did that kind of thing, I might violate rules, and that might put me in prison in Las Vegas on a Friday, and it would be difficult to get out over the weekend.”

Abdullah complied. Back in the terminal, a Southwest employee called security. Once again they checked Abdullah’s birthdate. As Flight 1991 took off into the afternoon sky, a gate agent told Abdullah he was now “cleared.” She booked him on the next flight. Abdullah, who had missed his afternoon meeting, took his boarding pass and asked to speak to a supervisor, who was apologetic. “She said I never should have been given a boarding pass until I was cleared,” Abdullah said. “She said it was an honest mistake. I said that is not an excuse.”

A Southwest spokesperson confirmed Abdullah’s account but defended the employee’s actions. “Following September 11 many new policies and practices went into effect,” said Whitney Eichinger, from Southwest’s Dallas headquarters. “All of our employees are aware of culturally sensitive issues and are taught to evaluate each situation and make decisions as they see fit.”

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta condemning Abdullah’s removal from the flight as “racial profiling.”

Abdullah, who has published 11 books and more than 400 papers on Muslims and Islam, said he harbors no ill will toward the airline, but he remains concerned about the impression the incident created. “The people on that plane will probably not remember me as an individual,” he said. “But they will remember that a Muslim man was pulled off the plane. That is what they will take with them.”

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