One of Canada's most moderate and respected Muslim clerics was pulled off a plane Thursday and thrown in jail by U.S. immigration officials in Fort Lauderdale without any charges being laid.
Ahamad Kutty, who has preached tolerance and peace throughout North America for more than two decades, was ordered off his Orlando-bound flight from Toronto and interrogated in an airport holding cell and a local jail for 16 hours as the U.S. marked the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.He has been declared a risk to national security.
Kutty, an imam and scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto and at the city's west-end Jami Mosque, was detained with fellow Toronto cleric Abdool Hamid. The pair had traveled to Florida to attend seminars and give a series of lectures and sermons on, among other things, the dangers of fanaticism in the Islamic world.
"We have gone through a traumatic experience. Really it dehumanized us," said Kutty, who arrived at Pearson International Airport last night at 8:30 p.m. Kutty said he was pulled off the plane at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and was grilled by at least 10 officials until about 1:30 a.m. yesterday."They handcuffed us and took us to jail."Kutty said immigration officials told him his Islamic Institute of Toronto organization sounded familiar in name to the Islamic Institution of America, which he assumed was some sort of suspect group.Authorities, Kutty said, were especially interested in a business card that he carried in his wallet bearing the name Islamic Society of North America. He said immigration officials made him sign a waiver giving up his application to enter the United States.Kutty also said he would not return to the United States and would caution others in the Canadian Muslim community against doing so.Hamid, who arrived with Kutty at Pearson last night, said one of the two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who had joined in the pair's interrogation had been apologetic about their detention, saying "You picked a bad day to fly," referring to the 9/11 anniversary.Kutty, 57, and Hamid, 38, were released yesterday afternoon. Members of both men's families say they were kept in the dark about the pair's whereabouts until 4:30 a.m. Friday when Kutty and Hamid were finally allowed to place phone calls home from a Fort Lauderdale jail."He was supposed to deliver the Friday sermon at the biggest mosque in Orlando today (Friday)," said Kutty's son Faisal.Norma Morfa, a spokesperson for the department of customs and border protection in Miami, said the two men were denied entry to the United States because they were deemed to be a risk to national security.She said the decision was made by a customs officer employed by the department of Homeland Security in Fort Lauderdale, but she refused to elaborate on how the decision was reached."This is by far the most bizarre incident I have ever heard of or witnessed," said Altaf Ali, executive director of the Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who visited Hamid in a Fort Lauderdale jail."You are allowed to fly on any day you wish in this country."Ali said he had been denied permission to see Hamid's affidavit by the Homeland Security department.Khurrum Wahid, a New York lawyer who spoke with Kutty, called the decision "outrageous" and said he would be willing to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government if Kutty wanted to take the case further."These are long-time Canadian citizens," Wahid said.An FBI spokesperson in their Miami office said two officers were called to the airport to question the men on the request of immigration officials."We were there for a couple of hours but didn't see any reason to have them detained further," the FBI's Judy Orihuela said yesterday."This is really shocking because both of them are totally against all forms of extremism," said Faisal Kutty, a lawyer and general counsel for the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association.In the wake of 9/11, Kutty became a beacon of reason and calm within the city's Muslim community. In an October, 2001 column, the Star's Jim Coyle quoted one of the imam's sermons at the Jami Mosque in which he cautioned his congregation against Islamic extremism: "Let us make no mistake about it: Today, Muslims have no enemy greater than fanatics in their midst."Let us know that fanaticism is ignorance; it is nothing but sickness and bigotry; let us know that fanaticism is opposed to both scripture and reason."
Muslim leaders in Canada were quick to slam the detentions as racially motivated and were calling on Ottawa to denounce the incident and insist on fairer treatment for Islamic Canadians and Arabs traveling to the United States.
"There's absolutely no doubt whatsoever, with the racial profiling laws and regulations the U.S. has instituted, that Canadian Arabs and Muslims traveling to the U.S. are treated like second-class citizens," said Riad Saloojee, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations Canada.Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, said that in the early 1990s Kutty was the target of threats from extremist groups who believed his views were too moderate.In a news release last night, the Muslim Canadian Congress warned Muslim Canadians to not travel to the U.S. "for their own safety" and urged a boycott of American products. They also lashed out against Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham for not denouncing recent detainments.Foreign Affairs spokesperson Reynald Doiron said the department was not given any reasons as to why authorities detained the Canadian citizens but noted that every country has the right to refuse entry.At the Jami Mosque, prayers were offered for Kutty's safe return."
It was a shock," said Imtiaz Uddin, as he emerged from the mosque. "I have never known such a harmless person."
Abdool Hamid, left, and Ahamad Kutty arrive at Pearson airport last night after they were detained and questioned by American authorities in Florida after arriving on 9/11 anniversary. (Toronto Star Photo/David Cooper)
With files from Leslie Scrivener
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