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Imam Barred From Plane, Suspects Profiling

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And now it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. In a few minutes, we'll talk about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which recently decided to open the door to the ordination of gays and lesbians. We'll talk with one of the people who pushed for that decision in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the ongoing question of how Muslims and Muslim-Americans are treated in this country. We're talking about this because last weekend, the North American Imams Federation held a conference in Charlotte, North Carolina to address Islamophobia, or the fear of Islam. But four conference participants missed their flights because they were not allowed to board their planes.

Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif and his son were two of those people. They were both kept off of their original American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte, while his son was eventually able to book another flight, Imam Latif ended up driving 12 hours to attend the conference. And he's with us now from our bureau in New York to talk about this experience. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Imam AL-AMIN ABDUL LATIF: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: I should mention that we contacted American Airlines to ask them if they would like to send someone to participate in this conversation, but they declined. But having said all that, Imam, could you just tell us what happened? You passed already through security, right? Do I have that right?

LATIF: That's correct.

MARTIN: The TSA security line so familiar to anyone who flies, what happened when you tried to board the flight?

LATIF: Well, even before that, I passed through the security twice because, again, going through a number of - the machine and being patted down and my bag searched. And we went in the boarding area and we sat down for a while. Then one of the TSA agents came over to me and asked for my boarding pass. Like, you know, and she took it and she didn't come back for maybe another 15 to 20 minutes, you see? And she had some markings on my boarding pass. That means they did another check. And she said, we forgot to stamp it, you're OK now.

No problem. We got in the line to go in. Of course, you know, my boarding pass would not clear and eventually while they tried to figure out what the problem was, you know, the gate closed and that meant that I wasn't going to make that flight. I was devastated. Of course, when we went downstairs, they said basically after they checked, that there was a discrepancy with the name on my boarding pass and the name on my license, you know.

MARTIN: So they're saying that your license has only the initial, A.

LATIF: My middle initial.

MARTIN: But your ticket had your full name spelled out and they said that that discrepancy was enough, they had to reissue. But by then it was too late. But what about your son? Was he allowed to board?

LATIF: He was already on the plane.

MARTIN: But they wouldn't let you go this time.

LATIF: No, they wouldn't, you know. So I said, OK. So I went back to the mosque in Brooklyn and called my travel agency, told them what the problem was and he made me a new reservation with a new confirmation number. And then my son calls me and tell me, Abu - Abu means dad - you know, are you all right? I said, I'm fine, son, I'm back at the mosque. I said, where are you? I'm thinking he's in Charlotte. He said, no, I'm at the airport. They turned the plane around. I said, what? And then he began to explain to me, you know, that all these flashing lights, the cars.

MARTIN: And then what happened to him?

LATIF: And they taxied the plane back to the gate and they took him off the plane and kept him in a holding area for about an hour and a half questioning him. Where was he going? What was his name and so forth and so on. But they never explained to him, you know, why they pulled him off.

MARTIN: Now, forgive me, I realize that my question is going to offend perhaps you and certainly others who are listening, but I have to ask, what were you wearing?

(soundbite of laughter)

LATIF: I was wearing my kufi, which would easily identify me as a Muslim and I had a robe, but it was a short robe. It wasn't - it came up to a knee length and a matching pants. So, you know, I had the Muslim uniform, if you will.

MARTIN: Traditional garb.

LATIF: There you go.

MARTIN: Traditional garb. And to your knowledge, you're not on a no-fly list or...

LATIF: I don't know nothing about no - I've flown before. Last time I flew was in October. But, you know, I'm pretty frequent flyer, you know, six, seven times a year. I go to different - I travel to different cities and states giving lectures on Islam, you know.

MARTIN: And this is the first time this has happened in - has this ever happened before?

LATIF: No, not this - I mean, the extra search and the extra security, that's been going on post-9/11 with many of us, OK. And other citizens as well, you know. But not this here, no.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, this was the Friday after it was announced that bin Laden had been killed.

LATIF: Right.

MARTIN: And so, it was announced that there was a concern about retaliatory attacks. And I'm just wondering if you think that it had something to do with - I just want you to understand I'm not justifying it.

LATIF: No, no, no.

MARTIN: I'm just asking you whether you think that might be part of it.

LATIF: I know that. And so I want to be secure too. So I don't mind the searches, I don't mind the pat down. I want to be secure too, just like every other American citizen, all right? But to deny me the right to fly, oh, no, no. You see...

MARTIN: You sound very upset. You sound very upset.

LATIF: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're still very upset.

LATIF: Absolutely. You know, absolutely. Because I had to drive 12 hours there, but I was determined. I said, I'm not going to allow these people to deter me from fulfilling what my obligation to be at that conference, to be a participant, you know. So I was able to go, thank god, and a lot of support from the, you know, from my fellow imams and the lawyers and all the good people from around the country, you know, calling in, showing their concern.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who say, well, we just have to be extra careful right now?

LATIF: OK. Then give me an explanation. Tell me what the problem is. You know, just like when they said it was a discrepancy with my name, all right. I submitted, I got another reservation, you tell me it's OK. Now you tell me no, after I made the correction, I still can't fly. Give me an explanation. If I can challenge you. You see? But to treat me like that, leave me in limbo, humiliate me, demean me, you know, disrespect me, you know, as a Muslim, no.

You know, so I think people should be outraged as Americans. You know, just unacceptable and we should not allow it. And they should put pressure, they should speak to the airline and let them know we don't tolerate this with no citizen in our country. This is America. Not in America.

MARTIN: Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif is president of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York. And I want to mention, he was not the only Muslim clergymen who was denied the opportunity to fly - had difficulty obtaining scheduled flights on that day last weekend. And he joined us from our bureau in New York. Imam, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LATIF: Thank you.

MARTIN: Imam Latif's attorney sent us a statement amplifying his concerns about this incident. If you'd like to read his statement, you can check it out on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs and select TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.