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US: Muslim men sue Alaska Airlines after removal from flight over Arabic text messages

Two Black Muslim men sue Alaska Airlines, claiming unlawful discrimination for their removal from a flight after another passenger expressed discomfort over their text messages
An Alaska Airlines plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport on 7 March, 2022 in San Francisco, California (AFP)

Two Muslim men are suing Alaska Airlines alleging discrimination, saying staff removed them from a flight for "talking and texting in Arabic".

In a lawsuit filed on 2 August made public this week, Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin claim the incident happened after they boarded an Alaska flight from Seattle to San Francisco on 17 February 2020.

While they were awaiting departure, they made small talk with each other in Arabic. According to the lawsuit, Dirar also texted his friend something in Arabic and used an emoji. 

The lawsuit says there was an "admittedly unjustified and unnecessary display of security theatre" which allegedly included humiliating the two men by "deplaning" them, surrounding them with law enforcement officers and subjecting them to additional "unnecessary" security measures after already confirming with police the text messages were innocuous and posed no threat. 

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According to the police report, part of the text chain that dated back to 2018, included the number "911". The men's attorney said that was a joke from Dirar's friend. The police report said the rocket emoji, which had been deleted by Dirar, was intended to describe a picture positively as "the bomb".

Dirar and Elamin had been immediately escorted off the plane with uniformed law enforcement saying the pair had "ticketing issues". 

According to the complaint, Alaska Airlines personnel informed a responding officer that the incident was a "misunderstanding between passengers", that "everything was fine", that "there was no threat of any kind", and that "police were no longer needed".

"By the time Plaintiffs finally reached their destination, they were too humiliated and traumatized by Defendant's actions to enjoy their trip," the lawsuit reads.

"Their trauma was exacerbated by knowing that such public mistreatment would give credence to Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic beliefs which have plagued the Muslim community in the United States for decades."

In a statement, Alaska Airlines stated it "strictly prohibits discrimination" and took such complaints seriously.

"Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe every day, and that includes complying with federal regulations on investigating any passenger safety reports," the statement said. "Since this case remains pending litigation, we're unable to share any further comment or details at this time."

Muslims have often faced discrimination while flying in the US. In 2006, six imams were taken off a US Airways flight in Minneapolis and detained for several hours after some passengers and crew members complained of what they felt was suspicious behaviour. 

"I will go to the end of this process because I want the airlines to stop doing this to any person. When we travelled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people," Dirar said in a statement. "I don't want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim."