Imams, Airplanes, and my Grandmom

Photo of Imams, Airplanes, and my Grandmom

Dear Friends,

On November 20, 2006, six imams on their way home from a conference of imams were forced off a US Airways flight in handcuffs because they had been praying before entering the plane. - Though they had gone through security and in every other way had satisfied every requirement, someone on the plane wrote a note to an attendant: Their presence made him or her uncomfortable.

From left are, Imam Omar Shahin; Ibrahim Ramey, Director of Civil and Human Rights with the Muslim American Society; Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, with the National Black Leadership Roundtable; Mahdi Bray, Director of the Muslim American Society; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia walk at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday, Nov. 27, 2006. Imams, ministers and a rabbi staged a "pray-in" demonstration at the airport and demanded an apology from US Airways for barring six Muslims from a Minneapolis to Phoenix flight last week.(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

Did US Air invite the frightened passenger to choose a different flight?

No. Instead, they forced the imams off the plane in handcuffs, and even after checking on their bona fides refused to let them board another flight.

Two days later, Imam Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, whom I had met in several vigils against the use of torture, called to ask me whether I would join a pray-in by Jews, Christians, and Muslims at Washington National Airport the next Monday morning.

I groaned. I had intended to come back home to Philadelphia on Sunday evening from a family Thanksgiving visit to the Midwest; to get to Washington in time, I would have to switch my flight and stay overnight in Washington.

I groaned - and said Yes, of course.


Here is what I said at the pray-in near USAir's ticket counter on Monday morning:

"My grandmother was born in Poland and came to America when she was in her teens. When I was eleven years old, she came home in tears from a visit to the kosher butcher in our neighborhood. She said that one of the women in the buying line had used a derogatory Yiddish word about African-Americans, and my grandmother had spoken up:

" 'You must not talk that way! That is the way they talked about us in Europe!' "

"That is why I am here today. My community knows very well that what might seem small acts of contempt, of dehumanization, can grow into mountains of death and disaster. So I am here to say to USAir: YOU MUST NOT ACT THIS WAY.

"Through her tears, my grandmom stood tall for an America that would not talk this way, would not act this way. How can I do otherwise?

"So far as I am concerned, I will do my best to fly on airlines other than USAir until US Air fully apologizes to the imams and makes full recompense to them. Then we will know that in America, we do not act this way!"

After leaders of each community spoke, the Muslims prayed in the traditional way, through prostration and chant. Then I chanted the prayer "Oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu, v'al kol Yisrael - v'al kol Yishmael - v'al kol yoshvei tevel --

"You Who make shalom, harmony, peace, in the ultimate reaches of the universe, teach us to make shalom, peace, within us, among us, among all the people Yisrael, among all our cousins the children of Ishmael, and among all who dwell upon this planet."

Several Christian ministers drew on the prayers of their own tradition for justice, for peace, for prayer itself.

And to all these prayers we together said: "Ameyn, ahmin, amen."

Shalom, salaam, peace - Arthur

P.S. I have gotten many "thank-you" responses to this message from Christians, Jews, & Muslims. I have gotten a few critiques. For instance:

An assertion that American passengers are so frightened of Muslims that for the imams to pray in public was itself a threat, a provocation, and invited being thrown off the plane; so USAir was right.

To this, I rejoined:

"So if ten Jews wearing yarmulkes, talleisim, etc hold a prayer service in an Egyptian or Jordanian or Pakistani airport, the airline can (especially if a frightened Palestinian or Lebanese passenger complains) handcuff us etc and throw us off the flight because in their perception, Jews are likely to be dangerous to Arabs, contemptuous of Muslims, etc.?

"The prayer service is a prayer service. The notion that praying to God is a threat or a provocation is horrendous. The same security check that goes for everybody else (or even a slightly intensified one, such as I have had occasionally to undergo, either at random or because the TSA thinks I’m a Muslim), goes for these people."

Assertions that I am supporting people who want to destroy America. Some of these assertions were said with relative calm; one, like this:

"Love thy neighbor ? Of course, as long as that neighbor is a "human being" and not a
poisonous snake intent on killing me. In which case it is my duty to kill IT first.

"If we don't exterminate this MONSTERS, Jews like you will be the first ones in line at the islamic crematories !!!"

To which I responded:

"Does it occur to you in even the wispiest way that when you talk about Muslims this way — using words like “monster’ and “exterminate” -- you are echoing the language of MEIN KAMPF, urging the remaking of the crematoria that did actually happen?

"May you be blessed with Torah and calmed from your fears."

The point is simply this: "Muslims" is a category only as a religious descriptor, and even that is pretty complicated. To be frightened or hateful toward all Muslims, or any subset, because of who they are – not what specific people do – is the same thing we call anti-Semitism or racism. It stigmatizes a whole community on account of the behavior of a few.

The worthy answer to such fear and hatred is something like: "I know you are frightened, but we can't behave that way. We can and should protect ourselves by regulating physically dangerous actions, by rules that apply to everyone -- and then we honor the uniqueness of each community and each individual."

A few responses asserted that the detentions and expulsions were legitimate on the grounds that the imams were heard to criticize America. I don't even know whether they did criticize America, but it doesn't matter. People who don't like the present US government are entitled to ride airplanes. People who don't even like America are entitled to ride airplanes.

People who carry knives, or guns, or who will not allow inspection, are NOT entitled to ride airplanes, even if they love America and admire its present government.

Of course by humiliating people it is simple to prove one's fear or hatred of them was correct. For if you do it long enough, some proportion of the humiliated will probably turn to violence. "Aha! – I told you!"

These wisdoms are rooted still more deeply in the ancient teaching: "Love your neighbor as yourself" – and Rabbi Hillel explains, "Do not do to your neighbor what you would not want your neighbor to do to you."

We usually think of this as an ethical teaching: "Be nice." It is that, and a great deal more.

For it is a PRACTICAL teaching. If time after time after time we treat our neighbors with contempt, some of them will finally pour hatred and violence on our heads. If we act lovingly, it is more likely – by no means absolutely certain -– that they will treat us lovingly. Surely this is not a one-to-one immediate payoff rule -- for the arc of the universe bends slowly, slowly, slowly. –- But it does bend toward justice. (MLKing, quoting the 19th-century abolitionist Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker).

Acting with love does not mean acting with reckless abandon. It surely requires asking ourselves what honors and what humiliates our neighbors.

In a world of compassionate concern, it might have been legitimate for the flight attendant to have gone quietly to the imams and said, "Some passengers have expressed fear and discomfort about your prayer practice. It's totally up to you, but it might be a good and helpful thing all around for you to explain what Muslim prayer practice is, etc. I feel awkward in asking you, but it's not a matter of your being at fault -- but rather an opportunity for education. As I said, it's totally up to you. If you'd like, I'd be glad to introduce you to do a brief talk along those lines."

Think what a different world we would be growing if that kind of response were what we brought to moments of fear!

Shalom, Arthur

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