Times Details Allegations Against Imams - on the Op-ed Page, Anyway

Op-ed contributor James Zumwalt does what the Times hadn't, laying out complaints made by fellow airline passengers of suspicious behavior by six Muslim leaders.

James Zumwalt contributed an op-ed to Saturday's Times that featured the first full description to appear in the Times of the case of the Muslim leaders, or imams, that were removed from a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix last November because of customer complaints of suspicious behavior. (The Times put it under a strange headline, "Witnesses for the Persecution." Who's being persecuted, exactly?)

Still, one cheer for the paper for finally accurately describing the suspcious behavior of the imams, albeit on the op-ed page and not the news pages. Its previous coverage of the incident was this incredibly misleading summary by Muslims-in-America beat reporter Neil MacFarquhar, which managed to leave out all the details and make the suspicious passengers come off as paranoid: "....six imams were hauled off a US Airways plane in Minnesota in November after apparently spooking at least one fellow passenger by murmuring prayers that included the word Allah."

By laying out what actually happened at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, op-ed contributor Zumwalt, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, an anti-terrorist advocacy group.does what Times reporters have failed to do:

"The incident that gave rise to the claim occurred last Nov. 20 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Six Muslim religious leaders, or imams, were removed from a domestic US Airways flight after fellow passengers and airline personnel became concerned about what they deemed suspicious behavior.

"Witnesses described conduct that suggested something ominous might in fact be in the offing. The imams, the passengers reported, prayed loudly in the open terminal before boarding, sat in different seats on the plane from those assigned, positioned themselves near exits, asked for unneeded seatbelt extensions (which they then placed under their seats) and, most disturbingly, made anti-American comments.

"The six were escorted off the plane so security personnel could conduct additional screening to ensure that they represented no threat to flight safety. By the time they were cleared by security, the plane had departed without them.

"Four months later, the imams filed their lawsuit against US Airways. Such claims normally are filed just against the airlines for allegedly improper conduct of its personnel. However, this suit went further, listing unknown ('John Doe') defendants as well. The John Doe defendants are the fellow passengers who voiced concerns to airline employees about the suspect behavior."