NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- Two Muslim religious leaders say they were asked to leave a commercial airliner in Memphis on Friday and were told it was because the pilot refused to fly with them aboard.
Masudur Rahman, who is also an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, said by phone from the terminal at Memphis International Airport that he and another imam had already been allowed to board their Delta Connection flight to Charlotte, North Carolina before they were asked to get off the plane.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Jon Allen in Atlanta confirmed the incident and said it was not initiated by that agency.
A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said the flight was operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which is also based in Atlanta.
"We take security and safety very seriously and the event is currently under investigation," Atlantic Southeast spokesman Jarek Beem said Friday evening.
Both passengers are Memphis-area residents. Rahman said he was dressed in traditional Indian clothing and his traveling companion was dressed in Arab garb, including traditional headgear.
Rahman said he and Mohamed Zaghloul, of the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were cleared by security agents and boarded the plane for an 8:40 a.m. departure.
The aircraft pulled away from the gate, but the pilot then announced the plane must return, Rahman said. When it did, the imams were asked to go back to the boarding gate where Rahman said they were told the pilot was refusing to accept them because some other passengers could be uncomfortable.
Rahman said Delta officials talked with the pilot for more than a half-hour, but he still refused.
The men were taken to a lounge and booked on a later flight. Beem said they flew on to Charlotte later Friday.
"We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused," Beem said.
The men contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"It's racism and bias because of our religion and appearance and because of misinformation about our religion." Rahman said. "If they understood Islam, they wouldn't do this."
He said a Delta manager apologized for the pilot's actions, but that he and Zaghloul never spoke directly with the pilot.
Ibrahim Hooper, of the American-Islamic organization, said the group will follow up with the airline and with the TSA to help ensure such incidents do not continue to occur.
Hooper said airline officials at Memphis tried to resolve the situation, but the pilot refused.