Muslim couple removed from Delta plane say they were 'treated like criminals'

Incident is further evidence of a spike in anti-Islam phobia that some say Donald Trump has helped to incite

David Usborne
New York
Saturday 06 August 2016 16:10 BST
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Council on American-Islamic Relations has education programmes to curb islamophobia
Council on American-Islamic Relations has education programmes to curb islamophobia (Getty)

A Muslim-American woman who was thrown off a Delta Air Lines flight last month says she and her husband were treated “like criminals” merely because of their dress and appearance.

Nazia Ali, who was attempting to fly back home to the United States with her husband Faisal Ali, were escorted off a Delta plane shortly before it left the gate in Paris on 26 July. They were meant to be flying back home to their three kids after a short romantic break in Europe.

The incident is compounding fears of a rise in American islamophobia, in particular in the context of the US presidential election and the anti-Muslim rhetoric unleashed by the Republican candidate Donald Trump. Two Muslim-American women who work for the US government were removed from an American Airlines flight in Miami on Wednesday morning in similar circumstances.

In the case of the Ali’s, they were taken off the plane apparently after a flight attendant told the pilots that she was not comfortable with them sitting in the second row of economy. She said that Mr Ali had been sweating and that his wife, who was wearing a head scarf, had been on her cellphone while the plane was waiting to push back from the gate. Seemingly, the attendant also overheard them use the word, 'Allah', or God.

A member of the ground staff boarded the plane and asked them to leave and take their belongings with them. The plane subsequently left without them. Delta paid for their overnight hotel in France and found them seats on a plane the next day.

“It was humiliating. We were treated like criminals,” Ms Ali said. “I thought, `We are American citizens. You can't do this to us.’” The case has been taken up by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which said on Friday it was filing a complaint against Delta and was asking the US Department of Transport to look into airline practices with regard to passengers

Asked at a press conference what she would like to see come of their experience, Ms Ali said, “I want people to be educated. This was an international flight crew. They should be more educated than to make assumptions based on appearance.”

“We call on the US Department of Transportation to conduct a thorough examination into the prevailing practices of major American air carriers, including Delta Air Lines, and to develop policy guidelines on the objective factors that are to be considered when determining that a passenger may legally be removed from a flight,” Sana Hassan, a lawyer for the Cincinnati branch of CAIR said.

Late on Friday, the air carrier, which is based in Atlanta but operates a hub at Cincinnati airport, issued its own statement on the affair.

New York's biggest carrier is Delta
New York's biggest carrier is Delta (Shutterstock)

“Delta condemns discrimination toward our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or gender,” it said. “As a global airline that brings hundreds of thousands of people together every day, Delta is deeply committed to treating all of our customers with respect. Delta continues its investigation into this matter and will issue a full refund of these customers’ airfare.”

Karen Dabdoub, the executive director of CAIR-Cincinnati, lamented the recent spike in anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.

“There are some politicians who will try to climb that ladder of success on the backs of American-Muslims,“ she said. ”Of course, we're not alone. These types of incidents are happening all across the country all too frequently. It is another symptom of the anti-Muslim behavior we see during the election season.”

“We had been in our seats for 45 minutes,” Ms Ali, 34, recalled. “The ground agent said, `Can you step out with me? We'd like to ask you a few questions.' So I said, `Do you want us to get our things?' And he said, `Yes, please grab all of your personal belongings. You're not going to be on this flight.' “

Her husband also related the details of being interviewed by the agent once off the plane, noting, “He said to us, `You did nothing wrong. That's the way the world is right now’.” Both the Alis emigrated from Pakistan with the respective families and became US citizens 16 years ago.

Mr Ali, who owns a home health care company with his father, noted with irony that he and his wife, who have three young children, all born in the US, had only been gone few days to visit “the city of romance and love”.

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