Iraqi Refugee Kicked Off Plane for Speaking Arabic in L.A. Says Islamophobia Boosts ISIS

A college student removed from a Southwest flight this month for speaking Arabic says anti-Muslim hysteria in the U.S. plays into the hands of ISIS.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo: Khairuldeen Makhzoomi

Updated | 4.19.2016 | 3:34 pm

An Iraqi college student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in Los Angeles this month and interrogated by the FBI because a fellow passenger overheard him speaking Arabic during the boarding process.

The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was granted asylum in the United States after his father was killed by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. He told The Intercept that he wants Americans to know about what happened to him because the current wave of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States is counterproductive, since it reinforces the propaganda of the Islamic extremists. Americans who see all Muslims as potential terrorists, he said, are “playing straight into the rhetoric of the Islamic State — they fall into the trap.”

Critics of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, including Hillary Clinton, have argued that doing so only validates the worldview of the Islamist extremists, who argue that they are engaged in a clash of civilizations with the West, and Muslims are not welcome or safe outside their self-proclaimed caliphate. After Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” in December, Clinton warned that he was “sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a clash of civilizations, that there is some kind of Western plot or war against Islam, which then, I believe, fans the flames of radicalization.”

As the Daily Californian first reported, Makhzoomi had boarded an April 6 flight to Oakland early, due to his frequent flyer status, when he noticed another passenger staring at him as he spoke by phone to his uncle in Baghdad. After he ended the call by telling his uncle that he would phone him again after landing, and used the Arabic word “inshallah,” a common phrase meaning “god willing,” he saw the woman get up from her seat and approach the airline’s staff.

Makhzoomi said that he was then removed from the plane by an Arabic-speaking member of the Southwest staff, Shoaib Ahmed, who questioned him in the presence of security officers on the jetway about why he had been speaking Arabic on the plane.

Makhzoomi, a political science major who hopes to return to Iraq one day to help rebuild the nation, explained that he had been excitedly telling his uncle about an event he had attended the night before, a discussion with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. The student, who also runs a popular Facebook group devoted to national reconciliation in Iraq, had video of himself asking the secretary general a question about Iraq’s strategy for retaking territory from Islamic State militants. He showed it to the Southwest gate agent on his phone.

After initially apologizing for causing a disruption, Makhzoomi said that he got frustrated when the Southwest agent blamed him for delaying the flight. “I told him, ‘No, this is what Islamophobia got this country into.'” According to the student, the agent was angered by his comment and told him, “You know what, you’re not going back on the plane.”

Makhzoomi was then taken back to the gate where, he said, he was accused of trying to leave a bag on the plane and searched in front of other passengers. He finally teared up when a police officer asked if he was concealing a knife and “touched my private parts.” The police even wanted to handcuff him at one stage for texting his mother to let her know what was happening.

The incident, he said, triggered a flood of bad memories of life under the Iraqi dictatorship he escaped in 2002 with his mother and a younger brother, Hamedi, who has Down syndrome and needs constant care.

The student was then interrogated by three FBI agents, who told him that the passenger who was eavesdropping on his call thought she had heard him use the word “shahid,” the Arabic word for “martyr,” at one point. The word is one of a handful of Arabic expressions commonly used by American bloggers and radio hosts obsessed with the threat of Islamist terrorism. Makhzoomi denied that he had said any such thing.

Makzhoomi told KPIX 5, the Bay Area CBS News affiliate, “One of the F.B.I. agents said, ‘Tell us everything about martyr,’ the word martyr, which is ‘shahid.'”

“She heard the wrong word because I said, ‘shallah,’ not ‘shahid,'” Makzhoomi said he told the F.B.I. “Basically, they associated that word with jihad.”

The federal agents also asked him about his father, Khalid Makhzoomi, a former diplomat who, his son said, was abducted and killed by Saddam Hussein’s internal security service after reporting that a son-in-law of the Iraqi dictator was involved in corruption.

About two and a half hours after his flight left, Makhzoomi was finally released and given a refund by the same Southwest employee who had taken him off the plane. He then flew home on Delta and spent a few days alone with his family, sleeping a lot. “When I came home, I was very shocked,” he said.

There is ample testimony to Makhzoomi’s moderate political leanings online — from his writing on Iraq for Huffington Post, to what is posted on his own Facebook page, and the anti-sectarian group he started on the social network, United 4 Iraq, which has more than 130,000 subscribers. Two weeks before the incident, for instance, he shared an illustration denigrating the Islamic State’s delusions of grandeur.

An internet meme mocking the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria posted on Facebook by Khairuldeen Makhzoomi.

Last week, he called Southwest and was told that he would have no trouble flying with the airline in the future, but was offered no apology.

The airline told the Washington Post that its crew “made the decision to investigate a passenger report of potentially threatening comments overheard on board our aircraft.”

“Safety is our primary focus, and our employees are trained to make decisions to safeguard the security of our crews and customers on every flight,” the company said in a statement. “We would not remove a passenger from a flight without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures.”

The airline also rejected the suggestion that removing a passenger for speaking Arabic constituted bias, adding, “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”

Since the incident was brought to light on Thursday by the student newspaper at Berkeley, Makhzoomi has been inundated with offers to bring a lawsuit against the airline, seeking financial damages.

He says he is not interested in money, but hopes to raise awareness of the climate of fear in his adopted country and hear Southwest admit that what it did was wrong. “Money comes and goes,” he says, “but human dignity, if it goes who will bring it back? We must fight for this.”

He made a similar comment in a video interview with the Associated Press published on Tuesday evening.

“Islamophobia is real,” Makhzoomi told the A.P. “and it’s time to say, ‘Enough is enough.'”

Similar incidents have been reported in recent months in the United States and Europe, as fear of terrorism has spiked. Several have involved Southwest. Last week, Hakima Abdulle, a Somali-American from Maryland, was forced off a Southwest flight in Chicago when a flight attendant stopped her from switching seats with another passenger and she objected. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Abdulle, whose English is limited, was reduced to tears and “suffered extreme distress and anxiety” after the crew summoned the police to remove her from the plane.

In November, two Palestinian-Americans, Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, were subjected to questioning by the police because a fellow passenger heard them speaking Arabic while boarding a Southwest flight in Chicago. The men were eventually allowed on board, but Khalil was then harassed by passengers who demanded that he open a small white box he was carrying. “So I shared my baklava with them,” he told a local news station in Philadelphia, where he owns a pizza place.

After that incident, Southwest issued the exact same statement to the media: “Safety is our primary focus, and our employees are trained to make decisions to safeguard the security of our crews and customers on every flight.”

Last week in Vienna, Hasan Dewachi, an Iraqi biochemist who has lived in Britain for six years, was forced off an EasyJet flight to London because another passenger saw him texting his wife and grew alarmed. “It transpired a woman passenger had seen me texting my wife in Arabic, my mother language, and for some inexplicable reason suspected I was a terrorist,” he told the Daily Mail.

EasyJet later refunded the money Dewachi was forced to pay for another flight and issued the sort of apology Makhzoomi is still waiting for from Southwest. “We acknowledge that we did not do enough to assist Mr. Dewachi, and have been in touch with him since to apologise for his experience,” the airline said.

Update: Late Tuesday, after initially refusing to provide any details of the incident to reporters, Southwest responded to a wave of negative publicity by issuing a new statement addressing Makhzoomi’s treatment.

In the revised statement, the airline said that the passenger who reported the student to the crew said that she spoke Arabic and had overheard “comments perceived to be threatening.”

There is no evidence as to whether the unnamed passenger’s claim was correct, or, if so, what level of fluency she has in Arabic, but Southwest’s defense of its conduct assumes that the woman did hear what she said she heard. “It was the content of the passenger’s conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation,” the airline insisted.

This seems to be consistent with Makhzoomi’s account to The Intercept and other news outlets, in which he said that he was asked by the F.B.I. agents if he had used the Arabic word for “martyr” in his conversation. However, he strenuously denies that he did use that word.

Southwest rejects the implication that bias against Arabic speakers or Muslims played any part in the incident, but it is not clear that the airline would automatically remove a passenger who was a native English-speaker from a flight for comments a fellow traveler said she overheard, without any other evidence that the person did make a threat.

Later on Tuesday, the airline tried to spin news reports on the incident in its favor, arguing that Makhzoomi was at fault for mentioning the Islamic State in his phone conversation with his uncle.

Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said in an email to Negar Mortazavi, a freelance journalist, “we’ve seen multiple media reports where Mr. Makhzoomi confirms he openly discussed a terrorist organization on the phone, minutes before his flight was scheduled to depart.”

This seems to be a reference to the fact that Makhzoomi said he told his uncle proudly that he had asked the U.N. secretary-general about Iraq’s strategy for retaking territory from Islamic State militants. While it remains unclear if this was, in fact, what prompted his removal — and Southwest made no mention of that in its initial replies to reporters — there is something perverse in the idea that a student who is an online activist against the Islamic State should be barred from flying for even mentioning the group’s name in a discussion about how to defeat it.

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