Muslim leaders removed from Delta Connection flight

Two Muslim religious leaders say they were asked to leave a commercial airliner in Memphis on Friday and were told it was because the pilot refused to fly with them aboard, but another passenger has a different take on the incident.

Masudur Rahman, who is also an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, said by phone to the Associated Press from the terminal at Memphis International Airport that he and another imam had already been allowed to board their Delta Connection flight to Charlotte, N.C., before they were asked to get off the plane.

Rahman told the AP he was dressed in traditional Indian clothing and his traveling companion, Mohamed Zaghloul, of the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, was dressed in Arab garb, including traditional headgear.

Transportation Security Administration spokesman Jon Allen in Atlanta confirmed the incident and said it was not initiated by that agency.

Another passenger aboard the flight called the AJC Saturday and said the pilot told him a different story.

Sean McKinney, an accountant from Greeenville, S.C., said he spoke to the pilot after landing in Charlotte and the pilot told him that TSA requested the plane return to the terminal.

"That seems more reasonable to me," said McKinney, 38, who was traveling for business. "Why would the pilot pull away from the gate if he had a concern with the passengers?"

Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which operates the flight, could not be reached for comment Saturday. Spokesman Jarek Beem said Friday evening the incident is under investigation.

McKinney said the Muslim men were screened by TSA along with other travelers before boarding the 8:40 a.m. flight.

"I had no problem with them. They seemed very cordial and professional," said McKinney, who said he overheard the men speaking in English while waiting to board.

McKinney said the men "stood out" but he noticed no passenger concern until after the plane returned to the terminal and TSA began searching the overhead luggage bins near where the men sat.

McKinney said the aircraft pulled away from the gate but the pilot announced they were turning around before reaching the runway.

TSA workers boarded the plane, removed Rahman and Zaghloul and began searching the overhead bins and the area near their seats, said McKinney, who landed in Charlotte two hours late.

Beem said the Muslim men were put on another flight to Charlotte later that day. "We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused," Beem said.

The men contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

"It's racism and bias because of our religion and appearance and because of misinformation about our religion." Rahman said. "If they understood Islam, they wouldn't do this."

He said a Delta manager apologized for the pilot's actions, but that he and Zaghloul never spoke directly with the pilot.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this article

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