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2 imams heading to Islamaphobia conference in N.C. ordered off plane

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • An imam says he initially wasn't given a reason he was kicked off a plane
  • Both men are prominent imams and dressed in Muslim attire
  • The airline apologizes but does not say why the men were ordered to leave
  • The imams were heading to conference on prejudice against Muslims

(CNN) -- Two imams heading to a conference on prejudice against Muslims said they were forced off their North Carolina-bound flight to undergo an additional security check -- only to have the pilot take off without them, even after they were cleared.

Atlantic Southeast Airlines said in a statement that it was investigating the incident, which took place Friday night aboard a flight out of Memphis, Tennessee.

Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, both imams in the Memphis area, were clad in Islamic attire when they were told to leave the aircraft as it was taxiing toward the runway. Their lawyer, Mo Idlibi, told CNN on Saturday that neither man had done anything out of the ordinary, nor were they praying or chanting.

Rahman, who is also a professor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, said he and his colleague cooperated throughout the process and thanked Transportation Security Administration agents and others for their kindness and courtesy. But he said, through intermediaries, that they had difficulty finding out why they were ever kicked off the plane.

One representative of Delta Air Lines, who claimed to be advocating on the two men's behalf, came out visibly red-faced after a long talk with the pilot, according to Rahman. This was after the plane had returned to the gate and Rahman and Zaghoul had gotten off and gone through a secondary screening process. Shortly thereafter, the plane took off -- without the men, who hadn't been allowed back on board.

"He didn't give any reason," said Rahman, referring to the pilot. "(The representative) said only that the pilot is not allowing you to go."

Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which runs Delta Connection and United Express flights, apologized "for any inconvenience that this may have caused."

Atlantic Southeast did not say why the two men were taken off the flight, but did claim they were given the opportunity to fly on a different flight.

"Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 5452 from Memphis to Charlotte returned to the gate to allow for additional screening of a passenger and the passenger's companion," the statement said. "We take security and safety very seriously, and the event is currently under investigation."

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations, told CNN the two men contacted his office and said they were told that other passengers did not want them on board the small commuter plane.

"TSA came on and pulled them off and said the pilot was refusing to fly with them because passengers were uncomfortable with them," Hooper said, referring to the Transportation Security Administration.

Earlier, Rahman told CNN affiliate WCNC that the incident reminded him of the prejudice Rosa Parks faced during the civil rights movement.

"That history I found today in that plane, and it shouldn't happen with any other person," he said.

Incidentally, the two men -- both of whom hold high religious positions in the Memphis community, with Zaghloul being an imam at Masjid Al-Noor -- were headed to a conference on Islamophobia. The meeting is sponsored by the North American Imams Federation.

Rahman, with Zaghloul by his side, eventually got to North Carolina and talked to CNN from there.

The men's attorney said they have not yet decided whether to sue the airline or anyone else involved in the case.

"We're keeping all options open," Idlibi said. "We do want to make sure that the pilot is held accountable for his actions."

CNN's Rick Martin, Craig Bell and Maria Ebrahimji contributed to this report.