'Flying While Muslim': Profiling Fears After An Arabic Speaker Was Removed From Southwest Plane Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speaking on his cellphone in Arabic. An advocate calls the incident "absurd and bewildering."

'Flying While Muslim': Profiling Fears After Arabic Speaker Removed From Plane

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to unpack a story you might have heard about. Earlier this month, a man for Iraq who is now a college student at the University of California, Berkeley, was removed from a Southwest flight because another passenger overheard him saying something on the phone in Arabic. Here's Khairuldeen Makhzoomi speaking to member station KPCC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KHAIRULDEEN MAKHZOOMI: First they pulled me out of the plane. Then they didn't allow me to go back. They got my bag - until the moment when they start searching me in front of everyone. And the police officer - he called the FBI.

MCEVERS: But here's what complicates this story. The passenger who overheard Makhzoomi also spoke Arabic. Southwest says the passenger overheard what she perceived as threatening comments. The airline told us it was the content of Makhzoomi's conversation, not the language he used, that prompted their response.

To talk about all this, we're joined by Zahra Billoo of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group is providing Mr. Makhzoomi with legal representation. Welcome to the show.

ZAHRA BILLOO: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: What do you make of this fact that this student, Makhzoomi, was reported to Southwest by another Arabic speaker?

BILLOO: I was something that I thought might be a possibility because the word that was being discussed was shahid, and shahid means martyr. He says he never said shahid, but shahid is also not a commonly known term. So I thought that maybe the person that reported him might be Arabic-speaking.

This doesn't change what happened. It doesn't change how, I want to say, absurd and bewildering the entire situation is, how invasive and traumatizing the law enforcement searches were. I am not deterred in my concern about this case because a person who reported him was an Arabic speaker.

MCEVERS: Very quickly just explain why the word shahid would be a problem.

BILLOO: I would say that no word alone should be a problem.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

BILLOO: But shahid translates to martyr, and I could see how it might raise an eyebrow. But still, there may be nonthreatening reasons to talk about martyrs. There may be a story in the news that one is talking about. There may have been a conversation at the U.N. luncheon with Ban Ki Moon that he had just returned from.

It amazes me that this person speaks Arabic enough to call law enforcement and airline staff on Khairuldeen but didn't catch that he was telling his uncle that he was at a luncheon with the U.N. secretary general and had the opportunity to ask him a question.

MCEVERS: But does this mean that Arabic speakers are now policing each other?

BILLOO: It's hard to say. There are a number of airline complaints right now, some against Southwest, some against United Airlines, some against Spirit. And they don't always involve a Arabic speaker complaining about another Arabic-speaking passenger.

And so it's hard to say that this is, you know, a pattern. What I do worry about is that it's a pattern of airlines acting disproportionately and then law enforcement supporting them in those actions.

MCEVERS: Khairuldeen Makhzoomi says he does not plan to sue Southwest. Here's what he said yesterday on KPCC about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAKHZOOMI: For now I'm asking for an apology. I can sue. I have many lawyers. They reached out to me. But I have said it many times. A human's dignity - it cannot be bought. This is something important. They have to apologize. They have to admit that there is a problem.

MCEVERS: We reached out to Southwest, and they told us, quote, "we will not be apologizing for following our obligation to adhere to established procedures." They added, "were we given an opportunity to speak with him - many attempts have been made - we would offer our regret for his experience." Makhzoomi says he has also tried to reach out to Southwest. Are there plans for a larger lawsuit?

BILLOO: We are exploring the options available in Mr. Makhzoomi's case and seeing how we can best connect it to what we are worried about as being a pattern - the new reality of flying while Muslim, as some Muslims refer to it. And so we are looking at the different options to see what will make the most sense.

MCEVERS: That's Zahra Billoo. She's the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco chapter. Thank you for being with us.

BILLOO: Thank you for having me.

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