The “flying imams” and the free-floating paranoid style in contemporary American Islamophobia

It is extremely good news that there has been an out-of-court settlement essentially vindicating the claims of discrimination by the six imams who, in a particularly notorious incident, were removed from a US Airways flight in Minneapolis on Nov. 20, 2006 following overwrought complaints by fellow passengers. Even more egregiously, after being detained, interrogated and cleared by the authorities, the next morning they were denied passage on another US Airways flight and had to go to another airline entirely to complete their travel. According to the terms of the settlement, the Minneapolis Metro Airport Commission, US Airways, and perhaps also the FBI, will be paying the clerics an undisclosed sum in compensation for this notorious incident of discrimination.

This result was almost inevitable once federal Judge Ann Montgomery in July dismissed a summary judgment motion from the Airport Commission and allowed the suit to go forward. As soon as the defendants couldn’t argue that their discriminatory acts were immune from legal challenge, a settlement was virtually assured.

This case is noteworthy beyond its specific details because it’s an excellent example of a particularly neurotic form of post-9/11 Islamophobia, which can be described as is the affect of free-floating paranoia attaching itself randomly to people perceived to be Arabs and/or Muslims in various different situations, prompting suspicions that remain active even when the situation is entirely resolved by the authorities. This paranoia then translates into demands for profiling. But, precisely because it is so amorphous, subjective and based upon almost Rashomon-like discrepancies in perception, it is a particularly slippery social and cultural manifestation of Islamophobia to define, track, analyze and, except in the form of specific individual lawsuits and complaints, combat in a more generalized manner that exposes the underlying patterns and cultural attitudes that inform such cases.

In the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, precisely this kind of free-floating paranoia led to the removal of over 80 people – many of them with no connection to the Middle East or the Arab world but all of them with dark complexions – from airline flights based on the suspicions of fellow passengers or crew members until the FAA itself cracked down on  the practice by suing airlines that engaged in it. Yet comparable incidents continue to persist to this day, although at a much lesser rate than they did in the immediate post-9/11 period.

The Minneapolis "flying imams" case is probably the most notorious instance of this kind of free-floating paranoia resulting in discriminatory abuses. The facts of the case were hotly disputed. The imams claim they were merely praying in the waiting lounge before boarding the flight. Their accusers, mainly unnamed fellow passengers, accused them of praising Saddam Hussein, criticizing the United States, chanting Allah loudly in Arabic, exchanging seats for no reason, requesting seatbelt extenders (supposedly for no reason and without using them, the implication being that they were potential weapons) and, most implausibly, of mimicking the “9/11 hijackers’ seating patterns" (whatever that means).

Certainly, it is possible that a mix-up and misunderstanding occurred in that boarding area, and that passengers, airline personnel and the authorities misunderstood or overreacted to the men’s behavior, some of which could possibly have been unintentionally unnerving to skittish non-Muslim-Americans in the post-9/11 environment. It is further conceivable that all or at least most of the parties involved were acting in good faith and were caught up in a concatenation of circumstances in which events took on a life of their own and spiraled out of anyone’s control. This view is consistent with the government’s assertion that, while the airline and ground crews acted properly in removing the men from the aircraft and alerting the authorities, the subsequent investigation revealed no evidence to sustain any suspicions against the imams.

However, Judge Montgomery, following a thorough examination of the evidence, found all of these allegations to be baseless and ruled that that:
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.

In other words, in hindsight it’s obvious that not only the passengers but also the authorities plainly overreacted, and as a consequence the imams were unreasonably and unlawfully discriminated against (hence the settlement following almost immediately upon this ruling).

The broader significance of this case comes from the passionate insistence of Islamophobic and pro-profiling commentators that, although there is no evidence for this whatsoever, there was nonetheless something sinister about the imams’ behavior, expressing precisely this trope of free-floating paranoia in contemporary American Islamophobia.

Author and blogger Richard Miniter, after speaking with one of the spooked passengers, concluded, “So what are the imams really up to? Something more than praying it seems.” What exactly that might have been, he was unable to say.

Profiling queen and ardent proponent of systematic discrimination Michelle Malkin described the event as an example of laudable “reality-based preemptive and precautionary measures to prevent the next 9/11,” as opposed to what it plainly was: an unfortunate mix-up in which some passengers were unnecessarily detained and interrogated, and ultimately discriminated against, by the cops and the airline, and other passengers frightened and unnerved for what proved to be no good reason.

Radio talk show host Mark Williams produced what may have been the most extreme reaction to the imbroglio, saying on Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes program that the imams “are one of two things. … They are either terrorists or they’re trying to cash in on the politically correct lottery,” and that “these people want us dead. … I don’t want this guy as my neighbor.” When asked if an Arabic speaking passenger should be thrown off the plane in midair, Williams’ response was: “Wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Those who continued to condemn the imams as “a threat” in spite of their clearance by a thorough and even somewhat abusive investigation in which they were handcuffed and interrogated for hours, as well as denied service on subsequent flights, latched onto the fact that their discrimination lawsuit initially included as defendants certain unnamed “John Does” accused of filing false reports. This was interpreted by many uncharitable, if not simply Islamophobic, observers as a threat to security at airports because it would supposedly discourage people from reporting their concerns to the authorities at airports. This perspective does not stop to consider how falsely accused individuals can protect themselves without availing themselves of the usual protections against false accusation in civil court.

This criticism reached well beyond the usual sources of overt Islamophobia. USA Today, for example, editorialized:
Now the reward for being vigilant apparently includes being dragged into a lawsuit and accused of bigotry. The wry adage about how no good deed goes unpunished seems apt, though not so funny… the imams want to know the names of an elderly couple who turned around “to watch” and then made cellphone calls, presumably to authorities, as the men prayed.

The newspaper argued that, “Suing passengers who merely report such behavior threatens everyone’s ability to travel securely,” without ever stopping to ask whether Muslims praying at a terminal constitutes legitimate grounds for reporting “suspicious behavior.” The fact that all the suspicions proved to be unfounded does not seem to enter into USA Today‘s calculations. I fear that we will wait in vain for the newspaper to issue any kind of correction to its earlier unfounded accusations.

James Zumwalt opined in the New York Times that,
Some security experts suggest the imams’ conduct may have been intended to identify aviation security weaknesses. Their John Doe lawsuit tends to support this theory, as such a complaint can also serve to manipulate our legal system to silence those who might otherwise report suspicious activity.

Again, Zumwalt does not consider how innocent travelers could or should protect themselves otherwise from abuses by those who have filed false reports with the authorities. The strong presumption here is the guilt and not innocence of the imams, even in the face of no evidence against them at all, and an unwillingness to allow them to pursue the defense of their rights in a court of law. If their claims had no merit, presumably they could not expect to prevail, although in the event, of course, they now have. Again, I very much doubt that Zumwalt will be honorable enough to issue a correction or retraction given the Court’s ruling and the subsequent vindicating settlement.

These arguments joined those of the notorious Paul Sperry (more about him in an upcoming posting on the Ibishblog very soon), who in 2005 was already complaining about lawsuits filed by people who had been unlawfully removed from airplanes, as noted above. In 2005, Sperry denounced the government’s refusal to engage in crude forms of racial and religious profiling, writing
[this] means that terrorists may ultimately win. And they are getting a lot of help from Muslim activists, who are encouraging Muslim passengers to file discrimination complaints against the government and airlines.

Sadly, the outcome of the lawsuit will almost certainly prove largely irrelevant to its cultural and political impact, and the rhetoric with which it was greeted by numerous commentators. The "John Doe" aspects of the case were dropped following federal legislation protecting those who complain about "suspicious behavior" in public places such as airports, but the case against the authorities and the airline remained valid and ultimately has triumphed. if they had any sense of honor whatsoever, those who had persisted in raising suspicions against the clerics would have the decency to now acknowledge their mistakes, but I’m not holding my breath and neither should you.

Most commentary on the incident, thus far at any rate and there is little reason to believe that the vindication of the imams claims of unlawful discrimination are likely to change this, held that there was either a certainty or at least a reasonable possibility that they were "up to something" nefarious.

The queen of the genre of free-floating air travel paranoia, Annie Jacobsen (whose prodigious paranoia I will explain in more detail in a future Ibishblog posting for those not familiar with this relatively obscure and yet viciously insidious hysteric) insisted that in spite of the lack of evidence of any threat or malevolent intent from the imams: “The imams’ lawsuit is a decoy. Its aim is to locate security holes in the castle walls,” she confidently asserts. In this version of Islamophobia, these imams to must be, if not fully-fledged terrorists, as she writes, then at least “spies” for terrorist organizations seeking to uncover the weak spots in the American transportation security system.

The saddest part of the tale is that now that court proceedings have proven that all suspicions were unfounded and that the clerics were subject to an egregious case of unlawful discrimination and unbridled paranoid overreaction, it is extremely unlikely that the overall record will be corrected or that the public will be informed by the same sources that urged them to be suspicious that these suspicions have been demonstrated to have been entirely unfounded

In the world of free-floating Islamophobic paranoia, every Muslim ever suspected of being a threat, no matter how arbitrary the suspicion was and how thorough the exculpation proves, nonetheless always was and must forever remain a potential “terrorist threat.”