Prayer Sit-In at US Airways

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Imams, Airplanes, and my Grandmom

WASHINGTON, DC - Nov. 29, 2006 (MASNET) Below is a letter written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center of Philadelphia concerning the six Imams removed from US Airways flight 300 and Monday's interfaith "Pray-in".

Dear Friends,

Asalaamu aleikum!

If you've already seen this letter, I apologize for the double-posting. The "P.S." at the end, however, is new.

Last Monday, six imams on their way home from a conference of imams were forced off a US Airways flight in handcuffs because they had been praying before entering the plane. - Though they had gone through security and in every other way had satisfied every requirement, someone on the plane wrote a note to an attendant: Their presence made him or her uncomfortable.

Did US Airways invite the frightened passenger to choose a different flight?

No. Instead, they forced the imams off the plane in handcuffs, and even after checking on their bona fides refused to let them board another flight.

On Wednesday, Imam Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, whom I had met in several vigils against the use of torture, called to ask me whether I would join a pray-in by Jews, Christians, and Muslims at Washington National Airport on Monday morning.

I groaned. I had intended to come back home to Philadelphia on Sunday evening from a family Thanksgiving visit to the Midwest; to get to Washington in time, I would have to switch my flight and stay overnight in Washington.

I groaned - and said Yes, of course.


Here is what I said at the pray-in near US Airways' ticket counter on Monday morning:

"My grandmother was born in Poland and came to America when she was in her teens. When I was eleven years old, she came home in tears from a visit to the kosher butcher in our neighborhood. She said that one of the women in the buying line had used a derogatory Yiddish word about African-Americans, and my grandmother had spoken up:

" 'You must not talk that way! That is the way they talked about us in Europe!' "

"That is why I am here today. My community knows very well that what might seem small acts of contempt, of dehumanization, can grow into mountains of death and disaster. So I am here to say to US Airways: YOU MUST NOT ACT THIS WAY.

"Through her tears, my grandmom stood tall for an America that would not talk this way, would not act this way. How can I do otherwise?

"So far as I am concerned, I will do my best to fly on airlines other than US Airways until US Airways fully apologizes to the imams and makes full recompense to them. Then we will know that in America, we do not act this way!"

After leaders of each community spoke, the Muslims prayed in the traditional way, through prostration and chant. Then I chanted the prayer "Oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu, v'al kol Yisrael - v'al kol Yishmael - v'al kol yoshvei tevel --

"You Who make shalom, harmony, peace, in the ultimate reaches of the universe, teach us to make shalom, peace, within us, among us, among all the people Yisrael, among all our cousins the children of Ishmael, and among all who dwell upon this planet."

Several Christian ministers drew on the prayers of their own tradition for justice, for peace, for prayer itself.

And to all these prayers we together said: "Ameyn, ahmin, amen."

Shalom, salaam, peace - Arthur

P. S . I received some responses to this letter that focused a lot of energy on how upset the other passengers may have been. So I asked myself, what could have been the best conceivable response that would have taken their upset seriously without punishing others for their fear?

What came to me was: In a world of compassionate concern, it might have been legitimate for the flight attendant to have gone quietly to the imams and said, "Some passengers have expressed fear and discomfort about your prayer practice. It's totally up to you, but it might be a good and helpful thing all around for you to explain what Muslim prayer practice is, etc. I feel awkward in asking you, but it's not a matter of your being at fault -- but rather an opportunity for education. As I said, it's totally up to you. If you'd like, I'd be glad to introduce you to do a brief talk along those lines."

Think about the different world we could be building with such responses!

What's more, I doubt this would have occurred to me if I had not been struggling with a view very different from my own. So dialogue, though painful, may actually be creative, thank God!


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