Two Black Muslim men sue Alaska Airlines, allege they were kicked off plane for texting in Arabic

·4 min read

The lawsuit says the men were removed even after a manager determined there was nothing alarming about the text messages in question.

Two Black Muslim men are suing Alaska Airlines, claiming they were wrongfully removed from a flight in February 2020 because another passenger complained about one of them texting in Arabic.

The Seattle Times reported that Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin filed a federal lawsuit this week against the airline, alleging racial discrimination and violation of their civil rights.

Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines is being sued by two men, who are Black and Muslim and allege racial discrimination and violations of their civil rights. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

According to the lawsuit, the men are “both male, Black, Muslim, bearded, Middle Eastern, Sudan-born citizens of the United States who predominantly speak Arabic and some English with a pronounced Arabic accent.” They were seated in the second row of the first-class section on opposite sides of the aisle, occasionally conversing with one another in Arabic.

The Feb. 17, 2020, incident happened as Dirar and Elamin were about to embark on a business trip from Seattle to San Francisco, The Seattle Times reported. The pair claim they were unjustly kicked off Flight 304 after Dirar was observed texting in Arabic by a passenger — who couldn’t read or understand the language — sitting next to him in first class. The passenger alerted a flight attendant of the digital dialogue before proceeding to exit the aircraft.

An airline manager removed both Dirar and Elamin from the aircraft after learning of the passenger’s complaint over Dirar’s text messages. ​​While Elamin wasn’t the subject of any complaints, the lawsuit claims he was subjected to racial discrimination because he looked and sounded like Dirar.

“Since September 11, 2001, persons who are, or are perceived to be, Muslims have endured heightened levels of discrimination due to bigotry and fear mongering, particularly in air travel,” according to the lawsuit. “This prevalent Islamophobia is often wrapped in racism and xenophobia aimed at Black and Brown people of Arab origin or from Muslim majority countries.”

The suit further asserts that people with similar identities have faced discrimination across the country simply for existing in such public places. Specifically, they are unjustly perceived as threats by airline staff and passengers.

Despite the fact that an airline manager — who could read and speak Arabic — reviewed Dirar’s text messages and found nothing alarming, airline staff deplaned the rest of the passengers for additional security screening, which included the emptying of the first-class lavatory tanks used by Elamin prior to takeoff.

“Through its actions, Defendant essentially weaponized Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic fears,” the suit claims, “by using Plaintiffs as human props in an admittedly unjustified, unnecessary, and self-serving display of discriminatory security theater.”

Alaska Airlines ultimately refused to let Dirar and Elamin board the plane again and instead booked them on separate flights, preventing them from traveling together. The men landed hours after their initial flight to San Francisco and “were too humiliated and traumatized by Defendant’s actions to enjoy their trip.”

“When we traveled 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, as reported by The Seattle Times. “I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim.”

In addition to an injunction ordering Alaska Airlines to offer racial and religious sensitivity training to all staff members, the men are seeking punitive damages, as well as compensation for economic losses and mental suffering.

Speaking for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington state, which is representing Dirar and Elamin, Katie Walker told The Seattle Times, “Alaska Airlines could have in that moment chosen to not listen to a passenger’s complaint, but they did.”

Due to the ongoing legal proceedings, Alaska Airlines declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

The company issued a statement saying, “Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination. We take such complaints very seriously,” The Seattle Times reported. “Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day.”

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