An Iraqi student at UC Berkeley was removed from his Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland earlier this month when a woman overheard him speaking in Arabic and reported him to a Southwest employee.
Khairuldeen Makzhoomi, a researcher at the Near Eastern Department of UC Berkeley majoring in political science, had been speaking on the phone to his uncle, who lives in Baghdad, about a dinner he had attended the day before at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
UN Secretery General Ban Ki-moon had given a speech at the event and Makhzoomi asked Ki-moon about “Iraqi Popular Mobilization units,” anti-ISIS militias in Iraq.
A woman seated in front of Makzhoomi — who also writes for the Berkeley Political Review and contributes to the Huffington Post — apparently thought she heard him say “shahid,” the Arabic word for martyr, Makhzoomi later learned. In reality, he had told his uncle that “inshallah,” or god willing, he would call again when he landed.
Soon, an employee of Southwest Airlines escorted Makhzoomi off the plane, where he was confronted by airport security, Makzhoomi recalled to The New York Times. Makhzoomi and his luggage were publicly searched, he says, and FBI agents were called. The confrontation became heated as Makhzoomi accused the airline of Islamophobic bias.
Security wanted to know more about Makhzoomi’s family, which had fled Iraq for Jordan in 2002 and come to the US in 2010. Makhzoomi told the Times that his father was detained in Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein, later to be killed under Hussein’s rule.
Makhzoomi, whom The Daily Californian called “a loyal Southwest premier rewards member,” was refunded the price of his ticket and travelled on a Delta flight to Oakland later that day.
In a statement, Southwest Airlines said that their flight crew had “decided to investigate potentially threatening comments” made on one of their planes and that the crew “made the decision to deny boarding to this customer.” The statement declines to “share specifics,” citing privacy concerns.
“We wouldn’t remove passengers from flights without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures,” the statement continues. “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
The incident, however, was followed shortly by another bias accusation. Last Wednesday, a Somali woman and Maryland resident, Hakima Abdulle, was forced to leave another Southwest flight after attempting to switch into an aisle seat.
A flight attendant told police that Abdulle, who was wearing a headscarf and was on her way to Seattle to visit family, made her “uncomfortable.”
Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland Outreach Manager at the Council on American Islamic Relations, told The Indepedent that Abdulle “suffered acute distress and anxiety as a result of this experience. She was publicly humiliated before a plane full of passengers.”
Abdulle has not received an apology from Southwest Airlines, which said in a statement that “our employees followed proper procedures in response to this customer’s actions while onboard the aircraft.”