The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA), in conjunction with the CAIR Legal Defense Fund, announced the filing of the lawsuit on Tuesday.
In February 2020, friends and colleagues Mohammed and Abobakkr settled into their first-class seats for a business trip on an Alaska Airlines flight leaving from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Mohammed and Abobakkr are both male, Black, bearded, ethnically Sudanese, Middle Eastern-born, Muslim citizens of the United States who speak Arabic and English. Abobakkr was texting in Arabic with a friend who was not on the flight. Another passenger, who did not speak or read Arabic, was snooping as Abobakkr texted. Seeing the Arabic language made this passenger upset, and they complained to Alaska Airlines personnel.
Instead of protecting their customers from the bigotry of other passengers, Alaska Airline added on this private act of prejudice with their own acts of discrimination that included: removing the men from the flight, humiliating them before their fellow passengers, unnecessarily deplaning the passengers, subjecting the men to additional security measures after having already reviewed Abobakkr’s phone and confirmed to police that the text messages were innocuous and that the men posed no threat, and explicitly prohibiting them from traveling together on re-booked later flights.
Alaska Airlines’ discrimination of these men not only interrupted their business trip, but also caused them serious long-lasting emotional distress and immense pressure to avoid the attention of others and conduct themselves in ways which conceal their ethnic and religious identities when flying.
The complaint filed by CAIR-WA is for damages and demanding a jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The suit claims federal and state violation of Mohammed and Abobakkr’s civil rights as paying passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight.
In order to prevent similar discrimination in the future, CAIR-WA is asking for an injunction to order Alaska Airlines to provide racial and religious sensitivity training for employees, as well as to establish culturally sensitive protocol and procedures in handling passenger complaints. For Mohammed and Abobakkr, we are seeking compensation for the economic damages and emotional distress that they experienced. Additionally, we seek punitive damages to penalize Alaska Airlines for egregious treatment of its passengers.
In a statement, Civil Rights Attorney Luis Segura said: “The intentional mistreatment of these men relied upon a widely known culture of Islamophobia in air travel to make Alaska Airlines look like the hero before other passengers, while denying our clients their basic civil rights. No paying passenger should ever have to endure such treatment—regardless of their appearance, language, or faith. We at CAIR-WA will do everything in our power to ensure that this airline is held accountable for its actions and that all airlines think twice before engaging in similar behavior in the future.”
In a statement, Mr. Abobakkr said: “I will go to the end of this process because I want the airlines to stop doing this to any person. 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. I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim.”
CAIR-WA said as a civil rights organization, it is acutely aware of how Mohammed and Abobakkr—as well as many other Muslims traveling in the US every day—are unjustly treated due to the deeply rooted prejudice and the criminalization of the identity of Muslims, Black people, and Arabic speakers in our country.
“Incidents such as this one hurt the entire community of Muslims in Washington state. We deserve better. It has been over two years since this happened, and Alaska Airlines has repeatedly shown no interest in making any kind of changes or amends. We believe that it is past time for change, and in filing this lawsuit are taking one step towards a future where any person, no matter their race or religion, can travel without fear of discrimination or humiliation.”