The Flying Imams

By Sean Carroll | December 6, 2006 1:00 pm

I don’t read many conservative blogs. I enjoy some quasi-conservative libertarian-types — Marginal Revolution, Daniel Drezner, Balloon Juice, The Volokh Conspiracy. (Even if libertarian policy principles are kind of crazy, they are often smart and provocative.) But the hard-core rightosphere, places like Little Green Footballs and Powerline and Michelle Malkin, I just find creepy. (But I must point out that I’m box office at The Free Republic: see here, here, here, and here. Freepers find me fascinating.)

It’s truly a different world, and worth an occasional glance, just to be reminded that the set of “important news stories” can be entirely distinct from what I might think. For example, I’d been completely ignorant of the menace of the flying imams, the subject of literally hundreds of breathless blog posts. Not being an aficionado of modern religions myself, at first I thought they had something to do with yogic flying, but it turns out that’s something else entirely.

Flying Imams (Walking) The story is that six Muslim clerics were removed from a US Airways flight from Minnesota to Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, accused of acting suspiciously. They were led away in handcuffs before being questioned and released, while their flight left without them. US Airways refused to let them travel on a different flight the next day; they eventually flew home on other airlines.

As far as I can tell, the suspicious behavior consisted of the following:

  • Praying.
  • Speaking Arabic.
  • Saying “Allah” out loud, several times.
  • Remarking unfavorably about US policy in Iraq.
  • Sitting in seats “reminiscent of a 9/11 hijackers seating configuration.” I think that means they weren’t all sitting together — some were even in first class!
  • Requesting seat-belt extenders, even though they weren’t really all that overweight.
  • Moving about the airplane, before takeoff, to talk with each other.

That’s about it.

To me, it sounds like the US Airways flight crew overreacted a bit. The seat-belt extender business is apparently suspicious because they could potentially be used as weapons. Picture in your mind’s eye, six imams (one of whom was blind) swinging their seat-belt extenders like nunchucks, overpowering a planeload of pasty Midwesterners. The “moving around” also has a relatively prosaic explanation — one of the imams who had upgraded to first-class decided to offer his seat to his blind colleague, who declined the offer. See, if they had been cold-hearted atheists who didn’t have religion to tell them to be nice to each other, all of this could have been avoided.

But, ultimately, I don’t place too much blame on the flight crew for reacting as they did. A situation unfolding in real time is always unclear, and caution is warranted; better to inconvenience a few people than put an entire flight at risk. Although I don’t think the situation was handled well, it was an understandable overreaction, and should be something we can put behind us. Mistakes were made, sorry about that, can’t be too careful, etc.

The bloggers who jumped all over the original reports, though — they don’t think that way. They can’t think that way. It must have been a real threat, or their entire worldview is in jeopardy.

Debbie Schlussel is outraged that the imams haven’t been banned from flying on airplanes for all eternity. (For what, exactly?) Instapundit thinks that anti-Muslim sentiment is their fault. Michelle Malkin claims that one of the imams admitted supporting Osama Bin Laden! Okay, the alleged support was against the Russians in the early 1990’s, and was encouraged by the CIA at the time. But still! Pajamas Media thinks it must have been a “dry run.” Apparently, it eventually dawned on some people that praying loudly and shouting “Allah” would probably not be recommended doctrine if you actually did want to sneak onto an airplane and stage a surprise mid-air coup, so all that praying and talking in Arabic must have been part of a coordinated campaign to soften up security personnel before the next actual attack. Or something like that; I can’t keep all the theories straight.

The entire incident is reminiscent of the time in June 2004 when journalist Annie Jacobsen freaked out at the presence of a group of Middle Eastern men on a plane. Not only were the men completely harmless Syrian musicians, but it turns out that Jacobsen’s own behavior had potentially put the flight in danger, in the opinion of air marshals.

What would you do, if you were Annie Jacobsen? Realize that you had overreacted just a tad, and examine how deep-seated fears can lead to unwarranted conclusions? No, if you were Annie Jacobsen you would write a book about how we’re not nearly afraid enough of dark-skinned people on our airplanes.

We’re very proud, in this country, of our commitment to equality, liberty, and the rule of law. But a lot of Americans are living in fear right now, and are willing to sacrifice much of the freedom that makes this country what it is in order to combat that fear. How far are they willing to go? Newt Gingrich is campaigning against the First Amendment. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress (and the guest of honor at the conference the flying imams were attending), is accused by Dennis Prager of undermining American civilization because he will take the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible. When radio host Jerry Klein suggested — as a spoof — that American Muslims should be forced to wear identifying tattoos or armbands, reminiscent of Nazi measures against Jews, he was disgusted to hear many audience members call in to express their full-throated support for the idea.

This fear is real, and politicians will take advantage of it, shamelessly and unapologetically. I’m not worried that the U.S. will descend into actual authoritarian rule, as these things are understood worldwide. But encroachments on liberty in the name of security can be pernicious and severe even if they come very gradually. That’s a much bigger threat to our society than terrorism will ever be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Politics
  • smm

    should we be surprised the flight crew over-reacted? i don’t think so. messages warning passengers not leave bags unattended and to be an the look out for suspicious behavior broadcast every few minutes. every subway car in nyc has sign pleading, “if you see something, say something.” it seems pretty natural to get suspicious of our fellow travellers when going through such scrutiny even makes us suspicious of ourselves!

  • Manas Shaikh

    This is nothing new. This has been happening at differing intensities in a large area of the map. A lot of things happen outside the offices what we don’t get to see! A comment thrown, a glance thrown….

    How can I, on the other hand, blame the people? After watching CNN and Fox News for some time, even a Muslim grows afraid of a beard.

    By the way I am having problem with posting comments. If you see this comment, know that it has been allowed after a number of attempts.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    I never knew how much trouble I could have caused…

  • Art

    A different, and reasonable, take about the same event described in a editorial at the Wall Street Journal.

  • Kevin W. Parker

    Sitting in seats “reminiscent of a 9/11 hijackers seating configuration.” I think that means they weren’t all sitting together — some were even in first class!

    According to some reports it was a lot more suspicious than that:

    Passengers and flight attendants told law-enforcement officials the imams switched from their assigned seats to a pattern associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks and also found in probes of U.S. security since the attacks — two in the front row first-class, two in the middle of the plane on the exit aisle and two in the rear of the cabin.

    “That would alarm me,” said a federal air marshal who asked to remain anonymous. “They now control all of the entry and exit routes to the plane.”

    Marshals decry imams’ charges

    I’m not a big fan of The Washington Times, but the overall impression I get is that the imams were trying to provoke an incident so they could get exactly the response that they are getting.

  • Omri Ceren

    Eh – I identify pretty firmly as center-right, and have sometimes found some of the WashTimes (and WashTimes-like) coverage of similar events eye-roll inducing. In this case, all signs point to it being a publicity stunt: there was very public and confirmed bashing of President Bush and the Iraq War (with such vehemence and reported so widely that the Secret Service felt the need to follow up – and say what you will, that organization is professionally run); there was very public and showy praying; there was the request for a seat belt extension from someone an imam who visibly didn’t need it; there was the not sitting together part (something the flight crew, if not the passengers, would have been freaked out about) – now of course, NONE of these things taken individually is or SHOULD BE cause for suspicion… which is why it’s so easy in blog comment areas to write things like “ohhhh… so now you’re saying any Muslim who prays is suspicious?” And OF COURSE that’s not the point – the point is that these passengers did EVERYTHING suspicious, not that any one thing that they did was dispositive. That’s hard to shove down people’s throats in politicized forums, but scientists certainly recognize the idea that there’s a qualitative difference between disparate strands of evidence and evidence that “hangs together”. There folks were pulling a stunt, and the sad thing is that when reasonable people come to that conclusion unreasonable people (a) accuse them of racism and (b) brush off their quite modest reasoning on the pretext of (a).

  • spyder

    There folks were pulling a stunt,
    So let me get this right? Pulling a stunt, albeit one that the FBI investigated and cleared of any wrong intentionality whatsoever, constitutes an offense of law and thus deserves punishment (no flying). Wow, only in the US (okay most of the other overly repressive regimes in the world as well), where our freedoms must necessarily be subjegated to the whims of paranoia no matter when it strikes, or how deep.

    Paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, fear, fear, fear, fear,.. say it over and over, loud enough and you might actually begin to get past it.

    Maybe, given the real, actuarial data of death rates from various causes, we should have audio devices in every single drivers’ cars so that authorities can monitor the verbal and suggestive behavior of those behind the wheel of weapons of massive terror, as we certainly can’t afford them to say dangerous things or pull stunts while driving. Some sort of electronic device to defeat the engine system (already available in several new cars to go with breathalyzers), then we can really start to get “control” over all of those threats. From there, we can move on to cigarette smoking (every third cig in a pack has a knockout drug in it), diets (food items that shock the purchaser if they pass through some electronic weighing system and are obese); eventually we just institutionalize everybody who has a genetic defect that they may pass on to someone that increases the susceptibility to cancer, stroke and heart disease. Oh wait, the US tried that back in the 20’s with eugenics and the experiments on african americans (syphillis) and indians (viral infections). Something about constitutional rights i think it was that got in the way. Well, we don’t need them when we are so afraid.

  • Rob Knop

    There’s nuance.

    They may well have been pulling a stunt. The question is whether the pulling of that stunt was similar to non-violent demonstrations– trying to point out how bad things have gotten– or whether the stunt was more akin to an immature and childish prank– or whether the stunt was more akin to the woman who tried to burn away the evidence of her farts, forcing a plane to land.

    If they were pulling a stunt, that justifies us clucking and shaking our head and asserting that their behavior may have been a bit buttheaded and annoying. But it doesn’t justify the paranoia, fear, racism, and stupidity that the stunt was designed to highlight.

    Was Rosa Parks pulling a stunt when she refused to move to the back of the bus? I don’t know if she had the idea of standing up and making a statement, of becoming famous and making a national push against racism, or if she just was an individual who snapped and got sick of being unjustly pushed around. In the former case, you might say she was pulling a stunt. Would that at all mitigate the unjustness and stupidity of the situation that made it possible for her to pull the stunt in the first place?


  • Rob Knop

    I’m not worried that the U.S. will descend into actual authoritarian rule, as these things are understood worldwide.

    Why not?

    When that descent starts, it always starts with the popular victims, the people whom many of the population find suspicious, the victims whose restriction of liberty will be viewed by many as an entirely reasonable response to the situation at hand.

    I am worried that the US will make this descent. After the PATRIOT act was passed, and some of us bitched about lost liberties, we were told we were whiners, that we hadn’t really lost any liberty. We were told the equivalent of, “it’s not like the President has been given unilateral power to declare anybody to not have habeus corpus rights! Stop exaggerating.”

    Now that the President has been given unilateral power to declare anybody to not have habeus corpus rights, once again we’re being asked what freedoms we’ve really lost, why we’re so whiny in the face of terrorism.

    How many more steps will it take before it becomes respectable to wonder if we’re on the path of descent into horrible authorotarianism?

    At least one person who’s been through this before sees all the signs that it’s happening here again in the USA: A post from “A Blog Around the Clock, which includes this bit:

    He may be right, if we act right now. If not, within three years, I predict that Americans will be fighting Americans on American soil. Just a hunch. An eerie feeling of deja vu from someone who has seen the same signs fifteen years ago.

    Is Coturnix being overly alarminst? I hope so. I sort of think so. But then again, I see other people accusing me of being overly alarmist in the things I bitch about, so I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, I’m being overly complacent in thinking that perhaps Coturnix is overly alarmist.


  • Michael nichols

    Ok I am one of those terrible right wingers out there. No I don’t think they were ready to start something. I think they did it to prove a point. I think:

    1. They wanted to remind us all to be PC. To remind us that muslims should be able to act exactly like the hijackers acted and that is ok. That they should be able to practice their religion how they want even on a plane and say what the want.

    Response: You know what it doesn’t matter it is post 9/11 even before 9/11 a 21 year old girl could say the word bomb and they would remove her for that. Sorry to infringe on your rights but yes you can’t be muslims,christians, atheist and act like a hijacker on a plane and not be expected to be treated like one.

    2. They wanted to clear a path for future terrorists by playing on liberal guilt. They can say poor us look how mistreated we were. How dare you treat us like this. This is profiling this is racism. Don’t treat muslims like this. Liberals feel bad. They say those poor imans some are blind dangit things have to change lets stop looking for these patterns.

    Response: Doubtful but whether they planned it or not this is the result.

  • Armchair Anarchist

    That they should be able to practice their religion how they want even on a plane and say what the want.

    So, it’d be cool to stop a flight and kick off Christian wearing crosses and praying quietly before take-off on a plane?

    Sorry to infringe on your rights but yes you can’t be muslims,christians, atheist and act like a hijacker on a plane and not be expected to be treated like one.

    Ah, so it’s acting like a hijacker that’s the issue. So what are the specific hijacker behaviour characteristics? You know, *beyond* doing things perfectly in accord with a religion that the country you are currently in hasn’t (yet) completely demonized? If they’d been blonde, white people who’d booked their flights separately but were going to the same junket, but all contacted each other before travelling so they could hook up on the plane and do the Jebus waltz before take off, would that be equally bad?

    You’ll forgive my confusion, I’m sure – as we Brits tend to follow the example of our leaders, and always ask an American before we make a decision on anything even vaguely connected to the ‘War On An Abstract Noun (TM)’…

  • John D

    You said it all sean, right there in the last paragraph….
    “This fear is real” – I just don’t believe you (and the mostly kool aid drinking crowd in here…) have convinced yourself of it yet. I can’t enjoy my freedom if the terrorist thugs run rampant. A balance yes, but let’s cheer for the right side.

  • Michael nichols

    Yes Armchair. If christians had attempted to blow up a plane and they had prayed and held up crosses before hand yes arrest and remove from the plane. The key has this behavior been shown to be aggressive on an airplane. You show me an example of an attempt to take over an airplane that started with christians praying together with their crosses then I will say no they shouldn’t do it.

    And what is terrorist activity. Hmmm Lets start with trying to recreate the same activities that the terrorists performed before they launched attacks on planes. How is that for activity. Yeah Sorry I don’t care if it 10 year old kids playing around. We are adults there is freedom of speech and action but with that comes responsibility. The same reason you can’t call the police 10 times a day claiming you are being attacked. Same reason you don’t yell fire in a theater and the same reason you don’t try to act out your civil rights on a plane by perfoming actions of a terrorist. With freedom comes responsiblity.

  • Sean

    All these people did was pray and talk with each other. That’s all. Being suspicious at the time might have been understandable; refusing to admit it was all just a mistake after the fact is simply paranoid.

  • Armchair Anarchist

    trying to recreate the same activities that the terrorists performed before they launched attacks on planes.

    Third-hand perceptual value judgement. I’m assuming you were not on that plane. In which case, you only have media-filtered accounts to go by; bias is inherent in all information we receive in this fashion, and we all gravitate to the media that provides us with the vision of the world we best sympathise with. This applies to me equally, of course – which is why I gravitate to media outlets that don’t assume any Middle Eastern guy with a beard who doesn’t speak English in public is trying to kill me or anyone else. It’s no coincidence that I don’t own a television – take that as you will.

    My response is – given that all the security measures put in place since 9-11 have been repeatedly demonstrated as being ineffective against the smuggling of weapons onto planes, if there really was a concerted conspiracy to perform another plane-based attack on American soil, don’t you think they’d have at least have had the common sense not to make the mistake of blowing their cover? And if the whole business was an attempt to:

    …to clear a path for future terrorists by playing on liberal guilt. They can say poor us look how mistreated we were. How dare you treat us like this. This is profiling this is racism. Don’t treat muslims like this. Liberals feel bad. They say those poor imans some are blind dangit things have to change lets stop looking for these patterns.

    …doesn’t Occam’s Razor have any effect here? How much sympathy do you have for the folk who claim the government is covering up evidence of alien contact? Because you have about the same degree of connect-the-loosely-spaced-dots circumstantial evidence that those people do, right here. Face facts – if you’re planning to blow up a plane (in the name of Allah, Jesus, Discordia or anyone or anything else) you’d have to be a grade-A moron to blow your cover before take-off. And if ‘The Terrorists’ are such morons, how can they be such a terrible threat?

    Your logic is inconsistent, my friend. I despise terrorism, the acts of 9-11 included, as much as any free man with any common sense does.

    But I also fear the curtailment of the very freedom that those terrorists publicly claim to be opposed to. If we are to be exemplars of freedom, we must be careful to only punish the guilty. Events like this only fuel the fire – a fire fed by ideologues who don’t actually believe in Islam or anything else, but who profit from war and discord in a myriad of ways. The real terrorists are the men who sit in the big stone buildings and make decisions that change the lives of those otherwise powerless to affect the world.

    It is not Islam you should fear – it is money and power that are your enemy, and that of all of us; and money and power wear whatever coloured tie or devotional garment that most suits them at the time.

  • Michael nichols

    Armchair I wasn’t on the plane obviously or I wouldn’t be here but I did fully read the governments report on 9/11 and the activities on that day as best as I understood them. If you read it yourself you would realize that they were obviously trying to create the same fear (terror) that the terrorists used during those attacks.

    I don’t think anyone with a beard is a terrorist either. Not every republican is bigot or a racist despite your thinking. You could have said six white 40 year old white guys performed the exact same action and I would tell you to throw them off the plane. So maybe you tell me where is the limit. When can’t detect weapons acurately so should we not try? We can’t judge people on their actions? Give me a break. Muslim or christian you say I have a bomb or you act out of the ordinary on an airplane we must remove a threat where it is.

    I suppose you think those people who fought back on flight 93 were out of line. Six muslims all get up during the plane we should let them be. Or somebody trying to light a shoe on fire maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Ah maybe he is starting a fire and murming islamic sayings because he feels like it But you know lets not worry about that we caught him. Maybe it was the great security you mentioned above, or maybe it was people who refused to take their liberty and freedom for granted and backed it up with actions.

    You are right about the media I agree the are untrustworthy. But so are the nut jobs like those who take in videos like loose change and take them for gospel. Believe it or not even republicans believe in freedom. I don’t want a camera in my home any more than the next guy. I am not willing to sacrifice freedom for security. But you my friend ignore responsibility.

  • Sourav

    I should grow out my beard and flash a Koran when I fly — freak out all the nitwits who think that terrorism should even rank among things to worry about.

  • Armchair Anarchist

    Not every republican is bigot or a racist despite your thinking.

    Never said that.

    So maybe you tell me where is the limit. When can’t detect weapons acurately so should we not try?

    Never said that either; security, good. Paranoia, bad. Effective detection rather than ‘explosive hair gel’ hand-waving is the way forward.

    I suppose you think those people who fought back on flight 93 were out of line.

    Definitely never said that.

    I am not willing to sacrifice freedom for security.

    Good man; we have common ground.

    But you my friend ignore responsibility.

    On the contrary; I will not lower the standard of life for the vast majority in the statistically unlikely cause of persecuting the potentially and insubstantially dangerous. It is my responsibility to act in the best interests of *all* human beings. That best interest is, in my opinion, best served by not leaping to false conclusions. Al Quaida leaped to a false conclusion in assuming that the entirety of the US (and their allies, including to my shame the nation that birthed me) was conspiring to destroy the Islamic world and ransom it for its natural resources. If they were wrong in that assumption (which I sincerely hope they were), how do we illustrate our point of righteousness by acting in the same manner, only on a far larger and better funded scale?

    Our responsibility, as enfranchised voters in democracies, is to make it clear to our leaders that we don’t want to live in a world where *anyone* dies for the sake of the power or money of others. This far, we’ve tried hard but not reached the goal – our leaders only seek our mandate when it suits them, and then feed us the evidence that will ensure its provision. If we want to set an example to unstable non-democratic states that democracy is a path forward, surely sticking our noses in to situations that are only our concern because our meddling started them is a mistake, and furthermore (from their point of view, not mine) a justification for enmity?

  • Michael nichols

    And I will not ignore my rights to have my life and property protected. My right to happiness and freedom from terror by allowing ANYONE to have their right to cause people to believe that those Imams were going to stage a terrorist act. What you call paranoia I can responsibility. I call protection of our rights. One of those rights is the right to use commerce, to live in society without another infringing thier rights on you. No this doesn’t go as far as I said something bad about you so lets haul them away. But just like yelling fire in the theater there are limits to our rights.

    This is from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Schenck v. U.S.
    (1919), setting limits on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the
    First Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,
    Junior, wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would
    not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a

    You were not on the plane I wasn’t either but someone was panicked by what happen. Did they go to far? Maybe. Did they have a right to feel that way? I don’t know and neither do you. But they were panicked enough to try and have them removed. YOu don’t think I should impose my third person perception on the act so why should you. Have you talked to anyone on the plane. I haven’t. But I give them the benefit of the doubt. That they acted to protect their own rights to life, liberty , and the pursuit of happiness. And I believe that they felt those rights were being attacked by some Imams trying to put on a show. How many times do you fly. So I tell you what you are sitting on a plane just before takeoff people stand together and begin to pray and act strange ask for seatbelt extenders or you smell a match burning like that lady who lit a match just recently to cover her stink and was kicked off a plane. You honestly tell me that you wouldn’t feel even a twinge of concern maybe I should just keep one eye open on those people you have not done that once. You honestly would just close your eyes and say Thankgoodness for freedom and ignore that. I don’t believe you would. I believe you yourself would at least watch. You know why. Because they are acting in a way that might threaten your right of suvival your right of life. Because it has happened this way before it could happen again.

    That is responsibility. You argue the freedom is absolute. I would argue the limits of freedoms are just as important as the freedoms themselves.

  • z.king

    I just find creepy.

    I hear you, Sean. I really do. And you’re box office lots of other places, too. That’s because you’re an in-tah-leck-shoo-ull.

  • JoAnne


    These guys did one more thing besides praying and talking – by arranging themselves with 2 in the 1st row 1st class, 2 in the exit row and 2 in the rear, they took seats that gave them control of all the exits on the aircraft. This is not normal behavior. In my book, this is where they crossed the line and behaved like potential hijackers. I don’t care if a group of people is purple with pink polka dots, if they purposely adopt such a seating pattern, then they should be removed from the plane.

    And yes, I am quite upset about our liberties being taken away bit by bit (I’m currently in a struggle with Bank of America as I refuse to give them my driver’s license number to comply with the Patriot Act). But, just as I am not free to carry a knife (or cork-screw!) on an aircraft, a single group of people should not be allowed to control all the exits.

  • Ryan Scranton

    Without anything more concrete, I’m dubious of this notion of arranging seating so as to “control the plane exits”. This particular distribution sounds more like the three options that frequent flyers usually end up experiencing. If you’ve got the miles for it and it’s a long flight, you try to get the upgrade to first class. Failing that, you try for the exit row so that you can use your laptop without fear that the person sitting in front of you leans back and crunches your screen. And, finally, if you didn’t book early enough ahead, then you end up buried in the back of the plane. I’ve flown in groups of astrophysicists where those sorts of groupings naturally manifested themselves and I’m pretty sure we just wanted to get to the meeting.

  • Sean

    I think Ryan just said what I was about to type, but — JoAnne, your reasoning would be perfectly acceptable if you were a flight attendant on the scene, which is why I wasn’t criticizing them. But once the imams — one of whom was blind, and therefore not the best person to “control the exits” — were brought off the plane, questioned, found not to be on any watch lists, found to be traveling home from a conference, etc, etc — then you just admit it was a misunderstanding, apologize, and move on. The seating arrangement might seem funny at first glance, but has a completely innocent explanation, as does everythign else. It wasn’t a “stunt,” or a “dry run,” or an aborted attack. Just an unfortunate situation, not one more episode of islamofascist terror-mongering.

  • Arun

    I’ve heard enough stories about other behavior (e.g., speaking in Malayalam and pointing to New York landmarks through the plane window) that brought on the air marshalls, that I don’t think there is specifically Imam-phobia here. Americans are simply extremely jittery.

    In any case, I have very little sympathy for imams – they are typically twice as moronic and illiberal as a Pat Robertson or a Jerry Falwell – a broad generalization, I agree, but e.g., when one has the congregation ostracize a member who does his prayers even when at office, but **doesn’t take off his shoes** – or when the Friday talk is always about how the US needs to be Islamized – it doesn’t leave one with a very high opinion of these. I do not want our freedoms to go away, but given the current climate, if anyone is picked on, I know who I’d rather it be.

    In general, I have little sympathy for those who are religious first, and human second. And I have very little tolerance for CAIR – the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I endorse Daniel Pipes here – “I make a living trying to figure out the nature of the enemy, and I have often said it is not Islam but it is CAIR.”

  • JoAnne

    Hmmm….I recently took a flight with about 20 physicists – all with frequent flyer miles up the wazoo (just from our cmtte meetings alone!). We all pulled every trick in the book to get upgraded or get the exit row, and, in the end, we were randomly distributed throughout the plane. One guy did get upgraded to first class. One guy was able to book an exit row seat. The rest of us were random.

    Now, let me dissect the Imam situation. The news reports say that the Imams changed their seats after boarding the aircraft. I am going to believe that this is true. (i) It is literally impossible to walk from coach to 1st class and take a seat after boarding. So the 1st class Imams either booked those seats or *both* of them were upgraded to the 1st row of 1st class before boarding (possible, but statistically unlikely given the low likelihood of getting upgrades these days). (ii) Ditto with the exit row Imams. Exit rows are in high demand. You have to have alot of frequent flyer miles to book them. You can’t upgrade to them without the frequent flyer miles. If one is empty after boarding an aircraft it’s a fistfight amongst the passengers as to who gets to sit there. Snagging two of these seats after boarding is next to impossible (unless the airplane was empty). (iii) I am left to conclude that it is the rear of the airplane Imams who changed their seats after boarding the aircraft. The very rear seats are empty unless the plane is full. Maybe they just wanted to stretch out and snooze (I’ve done that), so who knows. But, the whole configuration is not normal.

    Also, the flight attendents (not to mention the airlines) have a record of who is supposed to be in each seat (it’s that long computer sheet that the grounds crew hands the purser just before the aircraft doors are shut). So they know exactly who shifted where and whether or not is was “normal.”

    Anyway, it really seems to me that this whole affair was a publicity stunt, and I have very little tolerance for that.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Suppose we justify the freak-outs by ‘the current situation’ (no doubt to everyone the situation is different), should we not apologise for a misunderstanding to the ‘imams’ After the air is clear?

    About the stunt theory (JoAnne, #21) It indeed was a very strange choice of ‘commanders’ for the ‘operation’. A blind man in the ‘gang’!

    I strongly think that people has been MADE panaroid about the ‘other’. That is the problem with political nationalism, as Shaw would tell you, it tends to surely find one (or more) ‘other’ to contrast with ‘us’.

  • spayced

    Racism just won’t die, will it?

  • kyb

    Rob Knop: Maybe you’re being overly analytical in wondering if you’re being overly complacent in thinking that Coturnix is overly alarmist.

  • Rob Knop

    I suppose you think those people who fought back on flight 93 were out of line. Six muslims all get up during the plane we should let them be.

    Er, you left something out.

    Try: six muslims all get up during the plane flight and hijack it.

    Those last three words were the crucial part.

    Now, suppose that word got out on 9/11 via cellphones, and on other flights people started tying up or killing any muslims present. That would have been out of line.

  • Rob Knop

    Rob Knop: Maybe you’re being overly analytical in wondering if you’re being overly complacent in thinking that Coturnix is overly alarmist.

    Do you think it would be overly defensive of me to wonder if you’re being overly critical? :)


  • Count Iblis

    Al Qa’ida operatives always prepare their terror attacks by studying the security measures. I think that if they are going to conduct another 9/11 style attack then in the moments before the attack they won’t pray nor speak Arabic.

    Maybe they’ll use a few persons dressed like imams who will behave like the persons who were removed from the US Airways flight to divert attention :)

    After 9/11 the increased security measures have made it almost impossible to replicate the events on 9/11. But large scale attacks ae still posible. E.g. if I were Bin Laden, I would send a few my followers to medical school for a few years. They would then use their knowledge to implant explosives in the abdominal cavities of suicide bombers. These explosives can be set off remotely via a device that looks like a mobile phone.

    You could have many hundreds of these suicide bombers right now ready to board planes, and no one would notice anything suspicious.

  • José del Solar

    Apparently it all comes down to this: if you are criticizing the American war in Iraq and happen to be a Muslim cleric, that’s enough ‘reason’ for others to suspect you are going to blow the plain to smithereeens. Pretty understandable reaction, isn’t it? Only in a country afflicted by a deep-seated paranoia.

    If you have ‘liberals’ thinking this is enough reason for the crew to be suspicious, what can you expect from ‘conservatives’?

  • Amara

    Rob #9: “When that descent starts…”

    *When* …?! It has already begun. The Bush Administration’s Total State approach was clear to me in 2001 when they started redefining common words.

    Quote from F. Hayek, pg. 172-173, _Road to Serfdom_, 1944:

    “The most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed.”

    “The worst sufferer in this respect is, of course, the word “liberty.” It is a word used as freely in totalitarian states as elsewhere. Indeed, it could almost be said — and it should serve as a warning to us to be on our guard — that wherever liberty as we understand it has been destroyed, this has almost always been done in the name of some new freedom promised to the people. […]”

    “But “freedom” or “liberty” are by no means the only words whose meaning has been changed into their opposites to make them serve as instruments of totalitarian propaganda. We have already seen how the same happens to “justice” and “law,” “right” and “equality.” The list could be extended until it includes almost all moral and political terms in general use.”

  • Manas Shaikh

    At a time when tariq ramadan is being banned for supporting terrorists as a government policy, what better should we expect?

  • ordinaryAMERICAN

    This discussion about the “flying Imans” is very deeply entangled with the demographic consequences of post-1965 immigration policy. And one of the consequences of post-1965 immigration policy has been the expansion of the Muslim population in America.

    If the 1965 immigration reform act had not been passed, the probabilty of 9/11 happening would have been very close to 0.

    Or to put it another way, if America had maintained her national origins immigration policy, there would be a much smaller muslim population in America then there is today. And the probability of 9/11 would have been very close to 0.

    Even if there had been no change in a US foriegn policy- that obviously pissess off millions of muslims- a national origins immigration policy that excluded muslim, would have significantly reduced the probability of 9/11 hapenning.

    Liberals,leftists and corporatists-Republican and Democratic politicians-lecuture ordinary Americans about the blessings of diversity. Ordinary Americans are voting with their feet against the blessings of diversity. 9/11 was a consequence the mad pursuit to change the demographic composition of America.

    If we are honest,this is the context in which the “flying Imans” should be understood. The consequence of changing America’s demographics through legal immigration was 9/11. The public reaction to “the flying imans” was 9/11

    It is a much better idea to develop home grown scientific talent than to import it from the muslim world or other nations. This would have reduced significantly the probability of 9/11 happenning. It also would have meant paying ordinary Americans a higher wage.

  • ordinaryAMERICAN

    How about banning Tariq Rammadan on national origins grounds?

    If he is allowed in, he can get a geen card and eventually US citizenship which would enable him to vote for more muslim migration to America.

    The so called nice law abiding muslims are demographic transforming America street by street, town by town and city by city. If you want a few examples of this islamic demographic transformation taking place, just let me know.

  • Arun

    Re Tariq Ramadan, Daniel Pipes claims:

    “He has praised the brutal Islamist policies of the Sudanese politician Hassan Al-Turabi. Mr. Turabi in turn called Mr. Ramadan the “future of Islam.”
    Mr. Ramadan was banned from entering France in 1996 on suspicion of having links with an Algerian Islamist who had recently initiated a terrorist campaign in Paris.

    Ahmed Brahim, an Algerian indicted for Al-Qaeda activities, had “routine contacts” with Mr. Ramadan, according to a Spanish judge (Baltasar Garzón) in 1999.

    Djamel Beghal, leader of a group accused of planning to attack the American embassy in Paris, stated in his 2001 trial that he had studied with Mr. Ramadan.

    Along with nearly all Islamists, Mr. Ramadan has denied that there is “any certain proof” that Bin Laden was behind 9/11.

    He publicly refers to the Islamist atrocities of 9/11, Bali, and Madrid as “interventions,” minimizing them to the point of near-endorsement.

    Intelligence agencies suspect that Mr. Ramadan (along with his brother Hani) coordinated a meeting at the Hôtel Penta in Geneva for Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy head of Al-Qaeda, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh, now in a Minnesota prison.

    Mr. Ramadan’s address appears in a register of Al Taqwa Bank, an organization the State Department accuses of supporting Islamist terrorism.”

  • Amara

    Rob #9 “Is Coturnix being overly alarminst? I hope so. I sort of think so. ”

    I didn’t read that post before, but I just skimmed it now. Gosh, no. He is not being an alarmist. You are reading the opinion of one who lived through a totalitarian regime. Do you know how many people in former totalitarian governments all over the world are saying the same as Coturnix? Please understand that such people have a sensitivity to the words and the actions of the start of a total state, they are the pidgeons that detect the gas leak in the coal mine. The beginning steps of a total state were always the same. And it is identical to the steps of the U.S. federal government of the last half-decade. (p.s. speaking as a child of a 1945 Latvian refugee)

  • Manas Shaikh

    Arun, your arguments are inherently faulty. Go through them once more.

    Brutal policies of Hassan Al-Turabi

    See this. It’s not that they’re the devils. It’s that they’re not obidient to his highness Bush II. That is why they’re colored all so black. And about brutal policies, as far I am aware, he’s not responsible of any genocide, let alone for the killing of 2(or 6) million people anywhere in the world.
    The ones that preceded them, they murdered, they looted, they extorted, they were involved in drug trafficing…. You have absolutely no problem with that. (My skin’s safe anyway.) Stop being afraid whenever Islam is named. You will feel better.

    Mr. Ramadan was banned from entering France in 1996 on suspicion of having links with an Algerian Islamist who had recently initiated a terrorist campaign in Paris.

    Along with nearly all Islamists, Mr. Ramadan has denied that there is “any certain proof” that Bin Laden was behind 9/11.

    Al-Qaeda and Suspicion! Again! I’m sick!
    As far as I am aware, it is a fact that Al Qaeda has not been convincingly proved to be involved in 911. Despite all the claims. I am yet to come across hard evidence other than “he made a call to him”, “he rented his home for six months”, “they were seen together once in paris” that sort of thing. It basically assumes one thing: undeniably the criminals has link with Al-Qaeda, which itself is not proven.

    Neither has he said ‘I think Al Qaeda is the greatest gift to mankind’.
    Fact is fact, face it. When he said there was no proof, he did not mean Al Qaeda is an angel.
    The court of the United states has looked into it. They found not a single of his writings or lectures can be called provocative.” Not even in the sense of attacking or demeaning other civilisations.

    Intelligence agencies suspect that Mr. Ramadan (along with his brother Hani) coordinated a meeting at the Hôtel Penta in Geneva for Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy head of Al-Qaeda, and Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh, now in a Minnesota prison.

    I susptect King Bush II had been meeting bin-Laden in his backyard discussing next election. This election(if you don’t remember) he’s done a great job by releasing a video message just before the elections. That indeed carried king Bush II’s rheotics a distance.
    Intelligence agencies suspect. I don’t believe what media says about intelligence. Intelligence is not foreign policy that you go around beating drums about what you have found out. Whenever I see some ‘intelligence’ on newspaper (or tv or net) I become suspecious.

    A lot of allegations have been brought forward against Ramadan. Including doublespeak. But nobody ever provides evidence or example!
    It’s for those who want to believe all Islamists are evil. They require no proof.

    No it’s not that. It is because Ramadan is dangerous. He is well versed in history. He is reasonable. He’s eloquent. In short he’s more dangerous than all the criminals in Al-Qaeda put together.

  • Manas Shaikh

    I would suggest you watch these two documentaries (here and here).

    You will be less touchy when you hear ‘Islam’ next time.

  • Haelfix

    I find it disturbing how many people are falling into the bait which these guys so obviously pulled. It wasn’t a mistake, they wanted to make a scene and a statement. I see it at every protest rally i’ve ever been too. Usually you have some iratating lefty Marxist guy with a buddy with a film camera, and he goes up and purposefully nags and taunts police officers, while his friend pushes the cameras up in their face.

    He *wants* them to arrest him, or to tell him to leave, or do something rash, b/c then it adds fuel to his world view and makes a spectacle that he can then use against them. Police brutality, blah blah blah.

    In this particular case, everything happened as it should, they were stopped, asked to leave and finally not prosecuted (actually the airline should have banned them from flying with them). Good! I’m glad. I don’t want the situation where we have people pushing the envelope of security to its logical grey areas, just to test out reactions or to make political statements. The guys were jerks and as such, I would just assume not fly with them (and im sure the passengers would agree). Its not a right, its a priviledge in a free society.

  • Arun
  • Manas Shaikh

    Funny, the report is more about the rise and talks of Al-Qaeda and it’s leaders than being objective and providing proof. It talks about what the Al-Qaeda has said about America and all that. But I am yet to find any hard evidence. Can Arun point out page number of the report that gives hard evidence?

    It does not really look like a serious document. It is more like a subjective personal discussion. Do people really write official reports like this in the USA?

  • Count Iblis


    this attitude doesn’t work. If the authorities just follow rules and don’t use their brains, you’ll get nonsensical cases like this.

    Some time ago there was trouble about a French pilot who made a joke about a shoe bomb. He was not allowed to fly the plane, which was ridiculous, because a pilot doesn’t need a bomb, he could just fly the plane into a building.

  • John D

    Many more facts on our imams who see their role in life to cause grief for the country in which they enjoy vast benefits, and for which they have nothing but hate. Must be a fun life. Just gotta love these “religious imams.”

  • Steve

    What a thoroughly disingenuous link about libertarians(“Even if libertarian policy principles are kind of crazy”)! Though coming from an apparently typical Republocrat, its not all that surprising I guess. Stick to the Cosmic Variance, stay away from the politics, you’ll be much more enjoyable to read.

  • Arun
  • USpace

    Inconvenient truths can be scary and creepy, but not as scary if on already knows them.
    We have to refuse to be intimidated, if someone makes someone report them for weird behavior, then that person should be sued by the passengers for causing them distress with their behavior.

    These Imams were faking and goofing on the passengers, and were probably trying to get tossed off the plane just so they could play the victim card and go to court and make a scene. Any judge who allows this is garbage.

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    pretend to be terrorists

    scare people on a plane
    get thrown off claim racism


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar