Imams' Case Not Flying Away

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There is new and fascinating information in the “flying Imams” case. At the moment that I am going to press with this article, the media has all but overlooked the significance of these developments.

On March 13, the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad, announced to great fanfare a new lawsuit against US Airways and the U.S. government. The suit claims discrimination against the six Muslim clerics who were removed from a plane before take-off last November on account of “suspicious behavior.” In fine print, and never once mentioned in their press release, lawyers for the Imams also named the passengers who reported the suspicious behavior to security officials, as defendants in the case.

Airline officials said this behavior included alleged anti-American statements, changing their seat assignments so that they would be scattered around the airplane, and asking for seat-belt extenders, which could be used as weapons.

But on Friday, March 26, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public law firm known for its fight for religious freedom for people of all faiths — including Muslims — made a bombshell announcement. Instead of joining the Imams in their claims of religious discrimination, as would be expected, Becket Fund president, Kevin Hasson, said his law firm is offering to waive legal fees to any of the passengers named as defendants in the suit.

“It is most certainly the right of ordinary citizens, and indeed, their duty — especially in wartime — to report their suspicions to authority”, Hasson said in his open letter to Mr. Awad.

Hasson continued:

We have never before opposed someone’s claim for religious discrimination. But this tactic of threatening suit against ordinary citizens is so far removed from the tradition of civil rights litigation in the United States that we must oppose it to defend the good name of religious liberty itself.”

What can we learn from this case?

1) “Tolerance” and “inclusiveness” are not absolute values.

Why have we not heard even a peep out of the mainstream media about this bombshell announcement? Nobody within the media community wants to appear insensitive to the plight of the Muslim minority. In my opinion, this concern for sensitivity is disproportional. Television executives and producers have bought into the popular myth that “tolerance” and “inclusiveness” are sacred and absolute. But, in fact, no values and rights are absolute. They are always relative to other values and are limited by the rights of others.

2) Muslim leaders need to use more common sense to get the respect they deserve.

When the six Muslim clerics gathered at the departure gate at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, faced the East, and bowed down in prayer with their heads on the floor, they should have known they were going to make some people quite nervous. If these men considered praying at this time, place, and fashion a religious obligation, they should also have considered their social obligation to counter the fearful sentiments of their fellow passengers. Did they exercise reasonable care to diminish fear of religious fanaticism? Did they show kindness and solidarity with the non-Muslim passengers?

3) Religious liberty is a two-way street

In CAIR’s press release, Nihad Awad says, “when anyone’s rights are diminished, the rights of all Americans are threatened.” But as the Becket Fund rightly notes in their response to CAIR, by naming fellow passengers as defendants, the Imams’ lawsuit instills fear into ordinary citizens that they may be sued for discrimination if they complain to security officials about what they consider “suspicious behavior.”

This instilling of fear, in fact, diminishes the rights of citizens and, according to CAIR’s own logic, then threatens the rights of all Americans. Religious liberty is a two-way street.

Important lessons, I would say. What do you think?

God bless, Father Jonathan

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