NEW YORK – Six Muslim imams who were forcibily removed from a US Airways flight last year and are now suing the airline for discrimination may also be suing some passengers who were aboard the flight.
In the lawsuit filed last week, the imams say that unnamed "John Doe" passengers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reported that they engaged in "suspicious" behavior — praying in the terminal — before they boarded the plane on Nov. 20.
Omar Mohammedi, the imams' New York-based lawyer, said that the imams have not yet decided whether to pursue this complaint, but if they do it would affect only those passengers who were prejudiced in their suspicions.
"I think there is a difference between someone reporting suspicious activity and someone making false reports about a fact that did not exist," Mohammedi said. "We are not saying that people should not report; we are saying people should not abuse that process just because someone was praying or someone looked religious."
He said that if the passengers were suspicious based only on the imams' appearance, "then they should be liable . . . these people should be careful not to abuse the process and be responsible."
The lawsuit alleges that US Airways unlawfully removed the six imams from Flight 300 for discriminatory reasons based on race, religion, ethnicity, or other outside appearances when they tried to board a flight to Phoenix after attending a North American Imams Federation conference.
Mohammedi said all six used credit cards to pay for round-trip tickets. US Airways says the imams used cash to buy one-way tickets.
The lawsuit says US Airways has "falsely claimed" the imams' "suspicious" behavior, including saying "God is Great" in Arabic on the plane, talking about President Bush and Iraq and purchased one-way tickets with cash. Passengers also reported that some of the imams asked for seat belt extenders and switched seats.
The suit says one of the imams was blind, and his friend asked another passenger if he would help him by switching seats. The passenger agreed, the suit says.
According to the lawsuit, the same imam regularly requests a seatbelt extension when flying.
The lawsuit also claims that a couple sitting behind some of the imams in the terminal were "purposely turning around to watch" them as they prayed, and that a "John Doe" then picked up his cell phone and made a call while he watched them pray.
According to the lawsuit, police arrived at the scene after receiving a call from the airline. The imams were forced off the plane, searched, handcuffed and held against their will for hours without explanation. The imams claim they were questioned by the FBI about where they were from, whether they did anything out of the ordinary in the airport and whether they wanted to do harm to the president of the United States.
"I'm not going to go after passengers who honestly thought they saw suspicious activity; however, I will not let go passengers who said something ... just because they didn't like the fact that an imam was praying," Mohammedi said.
"I think the major irresponsible person here was the airline," he added.
FOX News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said the imams have grounds against the passengers if they feel they were unjustly discriminated against.
"Can you sue somebody for complaining about them? Yes. Will you prevail in that lawsuit? You will if there's no reasonable basis for them complaining about you," he said. "These imams turned out not to be terrorists, they had no weapons, they had no bombs. As far as we know, they had no plan to harm anybody, so the harm was illusory."
Napolitano said that if the case ever makes it to court, it will be up to a jury to decide whether the fears of the passengers who reported the "suspicious" behavior were founded, and whether the passengers were biased.
Mohammedi said he understands the concern following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, especially given the fact that the terrorists were Middle Eastern, but he said there are ways to take security precautions and also make sure people's rights aren't violated.
"We're all different, we all have our ignorance, we all have our prejudices, we all have our thing, but I think …the companies have to be responsible to find the balance [between] what they perceive to be lack of security and what is profiling … it's easy to discriminate against Muslims and Arabs and Asians on airlines," Mohammedi said.
But "I think it's very important now to be sensitive to people … a lot of them [Muslims in the U.S.] are contributing citizens to this country and they do a lot for this country and they love this country. It should be everyone against terrorism, including the Muslims. However, if you're targeting Muslims that live in this country, then there's a problem."
An internal probe by US Airways found there was no racial profiling in the incident.
Calls to the U.S. Attorney's office in Minnesota were not returned Friday.