Southwest Airlines kicked a Muslim passenger off of a flight earlier this year after other passengers heard him speaking Arabic, according to a complaint filed with the US Department of Transportation Office of Aviation Enforcement.
As The Independent reports, 26-year-old Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was sitting onboard a Southwest plane at Los Angeles International Airport, bound for Oakland, when he made a phone call to a relative in Baghdad, Iraq. Speaking in Arabic, Makhzoomi told his uncle about the previous night, when he had attended a dinner and got a chance to speak to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. During the conversation, Makhzoomi casually mentioned the terrorist organization ISIS as a passing reference that was relevant to the topic of conversation, and he ended the conversation with the Arabic phrase “inshallah,” which means “God willing.”
Another passenger who speaks Arabic overheard the conversation, specifically the part about ISIS and the phrase “inshallah,” and notified the crew. From there, things went south for the Muslim passenger quickly.
“One guy came with police officers within two minutes — I can’t believe how fast they were — and told me to get off the plane.”
Once off the plane, Makhzoomi says, authorities questioned him about why he was speaking in Arabic in “this political climate.” They then demanded he tells them what he knows about “martyrs.” Then dogs showed up and sniffed his luggage. Authorities took his wallet away from him.
Once the dust settled, and it was clear that Makhzoomi was not a threat, he was released from custody and sent on his way. He was not, however, allowed to re-board the Southwest flight that he’d originally been on. Southwest gave him a full refund, and he was able to book another flight with Delta.
Makhzoomi, who came to the U.S. legally in 2010 as a refugee from Iraq, says the incident reminded him of the sort of things he faced back in Iraq.
“The US is the land of freedom. People respect the rule of law. How could people be humiliated like this? That was the real shock. I lived under Saddam Hussein. I know what discrimination feels like.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) agrees, and the Muslim-rights agency has filed a complaint with federal authorities on his behalf. In a statement, CAIR civil rights coordinator Saba Maher said the federal government needs to investigate Southwest over its treatment of Muslim passengers.
“We don’t want this to become ‘normal.’ We are looking for a federal investigation and for the Department of Transportation to hold Southwest Airlines accountable.”
Southwest Airlines, for its part, says that while it regrets the treatment Mr. Makhzoomi received, the flight crew that day acted according to procedure.
“The internal review determined that it was the content of the conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to the investigation. Our crew responded by following protocol, as required by federal law, to investigate any potential threat. We regret any less than positive experience a customer has on Southwest. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
Members of flight crews have almost unlimited discretion when it comes to removing passengers from flights, according to a May, 2016, Fortune report. The culprit is a provision in FAA regulations that says that passengers can’t “insult, threaten, or interfere with [a crew member].” Flight crews have interpreted that provision as giving them the latitude to eject a passenger for just about any reason, says Fortune writer Christopher Elliott.
Do you believe Southwest Airlines was right to remove an Arabic-speaking passenger from the plane after he was overheard mentioning ISIS by a passenger who understood the language?
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