By Susan Jacobson, The Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — The director of Orlando Sanford International Airport said Thursday that a cultural misunderstanding over a bathroom ritual led to a group of Muslims being escorted off an airplane and questioned by the FBI.
An Allegiant Air dispatcher had requested that law officers meet the flight from Allentown, Pa., at the gate “in reference to Middle Eastern passengers,” a police report shows.
Half a dozen people, including at least two women wearing head scarves, were removed from flight No. 625, which landed about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, a witness said. Friends on Thursday said the group actually is of Indian descent.
Dale, who also is commander of the airport’s 11-member police force, said an FBI agent interviewed three men who aroused suspicion by taking a long time in the lavatory and asking for a cup.
It turned out to be, “just a nothing deal,” Dale said. “Just our not knowing the customs.”
Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said devout Muslims customarily clean their private parts with water after using the restroom, and that is likely what members of the group were doing. The procedure is known as istinja.
“They (the airplane crew) didn’t understand it, probably,” Musri said. “If you didn’t know the reason, you’d say, ‘Why do you need the cup? Why are you taking it with you into the bathroom?’”
It isn’t known whether the crew asked the travelers why they were lingering in the bathroom. An Allegiant Air spokesman could not be reached Thursday.
The group was bound for a volleyball and badminton tournament scheduled for this weekend at Lake Brantley High School, members told police. The Muslim-community event, sponsored by Union Sports Club of Orlando, is expected to draw 1,000 people, said Ali Bhojani, an organizer.
“I’m glad they didn’t have to divert the plane to another airport,” Musri said. “Sometimes we overreact.”