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Alaska Airlines sued for allegedly deplaning two Muslim-Americans over Arabic texts

Alaska Airlines wrongfully removed two Black Muslim men from one of its flights in Washington state after a fellow passenger complained about one of the men sending a text message in Arabic, a recent federal lawsuit alleges.

Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin boarded a trip in Seattle headed to San Francisco in February 2020, the lawsuit states. Just before takeoff, Dirar sent text messages and emojis to a friend who wasn't on the plane. Another passenger, who couldn't read or speak Arabic, saw the text messages and complained to an Alaska Airlines flight crew member, Dirar and Elamin's lawyers said in a statement

The suit, filed August 2 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Washington, claims the unnamed passenger who reported the men quickly stood up, grabbed his bag and exited the plane. An Alaska Airlines manager then deplaned Dirar and Elamin, after which the men were subjected to extra security checks and blocked from boarding a plane together on a re-booked flight. Airport security personnel also took Dirar's cellphone, the lawsuit alleges. 

"Alaska Airlines' discrimination of these men not only interrupted their business trip, but also caused them serious long-lasting emotional distress and immense pressure to avoid the attention of others and conduct themselves in ways which conceal their ethnic and religious identities when flying," the men's lawyers said. 

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Alaska Airlines said it takes discrimination seriously but won't comment in detail about the case because it's pending litigation. The Seattle company is being sued for discrimination under state and federal civil rights statutes. 

"Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe every day, and that includes complying with federal regulations on investigating any passenger safety reports," the airlines said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch. 

Dirar and Elamin are bearded men who were born in Sudan but are now U.S. citizens, the lawsuit states. The friends were traveling to San Francisco to purchase cars that they were then going to drive back north to Washington state, according to the lawsuit. After airport police took Dirar's phone, authorities realized the text messages he had been sending were harmless, the lawsuit reads. 

Dirar said in a statement that he's suing in hopes that Alaska Airlines will never mistreat another Muslim American. 

"I will go to the end of this process because I want the airlines to stop doing this to any person," he said. "When we traveled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people."

Dirar and Elamin's lawyers say their clients' incident is steeped in the Islamophobia that persists in the U.S. two decades after the September 11, 2001 attacks. 

Muslim Americans say they still face hostility 20 years after 9/11 but the hate crimes directed toward them — including mosque burnings and other violence — are no longer front-and-center. 

The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported to the FBI grew from 107 in 2009 to 176 in 2019, according to the most recent federal data available. On Tuesday, police in New Mexico arrested and charged a 51-year-old man with the murder of two Muslim men in Albuquerque. 

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