Two black Muslim men are suing Alaska Airlines, claiming unlawful discrimination for their removal from a flight after another passenger expressed discomfort over their Arabic text messages. This an interesting case that is a bit more complicated considering the content of the text messages.
Alaska Airlines Discrimination Lawsuit from Black Muslim Men Center On Text Messages
On February 17, 2020 Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin were seated in first class waiting to fly from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco (SFO). Both are U.S. citizens born in Sudan. The two men were colleagues in a medical transport business and planned to purchase vehicles in the Bay Area and drive them back to Washington state.
Prior to takeoff, the two men conversed in Arabic. Dirar also messaged a friend in Arabic. The passenger sitting next to Dirar was alarmed by the text messages, grabbed his stuff, and told the flight attendants he would not fly on the same plane as Dirar.
Alaska Airlines instead removed Dirar and Elamin. The captain also ordered the lavatory tanks to be emptied because one of the men used the lavatory. A police dog also screened luggage for explosives. The two were not even allowed to fly together on a later flight after they were cleared of any wrongdoing.
And if that was the end of the fact pattern, then I would say the two men have every right to launch a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines and seek major damages.
But there’s a twist to the story. It was not just the Arabic in the text messages that raised alarms, which could be chalked up to ignorance-driven discrimination, but an emoji and a reference to 911. Amongst the chain of messages that the snooping seatmate witnessed was the numbers “911” and also a rocket emoji.
The 911 reference was said to be a joke from Dirar’s friend, who claimed that was his wife’s number, since her calls have to be taken seriously and immediately. The rocket, which Dirar deleted, was in response to a photo, which Dirar meant to describe as “the bomb” (a dated reference to being cool).
The lawsuit claims Alaska Airlines chose to “self-servingly discriminate against [the men] based upon their perceived religion, race, color, ethnicity, alienage and national origin by using Plaintiffs as scapegoats in an admittedly unjustified and unnecessary display of security theater.”
Although the incident occurred in late 2020, a lawsuit was only filed last week by the local office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington state. The men seek monetary damages and for Alaska Airlines to provide racial and religious sensitivity training to employees.
And of course as a white Christian man who was thrown off a United Airlines flight for using the word “terorrist” in what I thought was an innocuous way, there is a special level of sympathy between me and the displaced passengers.
But it wasn’t just the Arabic. The rocket emoji plus reference to 911 plus the deleted emoji plus traveling in a pair…we are only human and I get that the combination of all factors raised alarm.
I do think the two should have been allowed to fly once re-screened (have we any trust in our security apparatus?) and that once the matter was clarified, if any other passengers were uncomfortable flying with the two men, it was on them.
From my vantage point, the emoji and 911 reference makes this more complicated than pure discrimination against blacks or Muslims. I don’t condone discrimination against people on the basis of their religion or color nor do I applaud a seatmate reading his neighbor’s text messages. I wasn’t there, but probably would have said nothing if I had witnessed what the frightened seatmate did. But if you’re honest with yourself, you might also be a bit concerned too if you saw all those factors at once.