The night before 26-year old Iraqi refugee Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight and interrogated by the FBI, he was at an event hosted by the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, asking UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about Popular Mobilization Units, the Shiite militia forces fighting against the so-called Islamic State in his home country.
Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California-Berkeley, was granted asylum in the United States six years ago after, he says, his father was abducted, imprisoned, and murdered by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. In Baghdad, his father—who was once a diplomat—had reported corruption linked to Saddam’s son-in-law. Today, as a double major in political science and Near East studies at Berkeley, Makhzoomi researches methods for improving people’s lives in Iraq and hopes to one day return to help rebuild the nation.
Makhzoomi boarded a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Oakland on April 6. He was speaking in Arabic on the phone with his uncle in Baghdad when he noticed that the woman in the seat in front of him turned to stare at him through the gap between the seats. Makhzoomi remembers thinking, Why are you staring at me? Feeling uneasy, he cut the call short. Using a common Arabic phrase that means “God willing,” Makhzoomi told his uncle: “Inshallah, I will call you when I land.”
“The moment I finished my call, she left the plane.” He had a feeling something was wrong, and a short mantra repeated in his mind: I hope she’s not reporting me; I hope she’s not reporting me.
Within a few minutes, Makhzoomi was removed from the plane and taken to a hallway by the boarding gate where three police officers were waiting for him. The airline agent who pulled him off the plane, and who spoke Arabic, asked him, “What were you doing on the plane?”
“I was talking to my uncle,” Makhzoomi replied.
“It seems you were having a serious conversation with him.”
“No, I was telling him about an event I attended, a dinner with Ban Ki-moon. Look at this,” Makhzoomi said, pulling out his phone to show the agent a video, “I was able to ask the secretary general a question.” His explanation got him nowhere.
“Why are you speaking in that language?” the agent asked. “At the airport, you know this is a dangerous environment.” Makhzoomi apologized, but the employee continued to criticize him, saying, “Look what you’ve done. Now the plane is going to leave late.”
“You can’t do anything,” Makhzoomi tells me on the phone. “You can’t tell him to shut up, but I needed to say something.” Exasperated, he said he told the employee, “This is what Islamophobia got this country into.” According to Makhzoomi, the agent shot back: “You’re not getting back onto this plane.”
At that point, a police officer leaned into his radio and said, “Call the FBI.” Makhzoomi was taken to the terminal, where more police officers, police dogs, and later three FBI agents, joined him. He told me he was accused of trying to leave a bag on the airplane, which was actually another passenger’s. He told me the police wanted to handcuff him when he tried to text his mother to tell her what was happening, and to tell her not to worry. (The last time a family member of hers didn’t come home when expected was when her husband, Makhzoomi’s father, was abducted by Saddam’s secret police in 2001. “For two weeks, my mother was walking the streets looking for him,” says Makhzoomi.)
Eventually, an officer searched Makhzoomi in plain view of everyone in the terminal. “He put my hands to my back and my head to the wall and he started searching me,” Makhzoomi says. “Even when I visited my father in Abu Ghraib prison, I never have been through such a humiliating way of searching—reaching into my body parts and, let me be very honest with you, touching my balls and saying that if I have a knife, I might want to cut him.”
Makhzoomi told me that at this point he was crying and just told the officer, “‘No, I don’t have a knife.’ That is the maximum level of feeling of humiliation in my life. Everyone was looking at me.”
When the FBI arrived at the airport, they took him to a private room and the questioning began anew. Agents told him that the passenger who reported him—who Southwest Airlines reports also speaks Arabic—thought she overheard him say the word shahid, which means “martyr.”* An FBI agent said, “You need to be honest with us. Tell us everything you know about martyrdom.”
Stunned, Makhzoomi told them that he never mentioned the word, that they could call his uncle to ask (he then offered them his phone), and that the word is associated with terrorism. In Makhzoomi’s own writings at the Huffington Post, he advocates reconciliation and cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites as a way to purge “the ISIS menace.” He has also formed a Facebook group called “United 4 Iraq,” which has more than 130,000 followers and is aimed at anti-sectarianism, and he posts anti-extremism memes on his own Facebook account. Eventually, the FBI let Makhzoomi go but told him that he would not be able to fly Southwest that day. The same Southwest agent who pulled him off the plane also gave him a refund for the missed flight. The search and interrogation took nearly three hours, ending long after his original flight had arrived back in Oakland.
Makhzoomi’s experience may be extreme, but it is not unique. So far this year, there have been at least six similar incidents reported in the United States, according to Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Billoo pointed to cases like the one last week in Chicago, also a Southwest Airlines flight, in which Hakima Abdulle, a Maryland resident of Somali descent who was wearing a hijab, was told she would not be able to remain on board her Seattle-bound flight. With Abdulle in tears, airport police escorted her off the plane without giving her “any reasonable explanation,” according to a CAIR official.
In February, a Muslim family was removed from a United Airlines flight after having a discussion with an employee about how to secure a child’s booster seat. In a YouTube video posted by the mother, Eaman-Amy Saad Shebley, an airline employee told them to leave because of “a safety of flight issue.” “I felt singled-out, humiliated, and helpless,” the mother reported in a statement released by CAIR.
Last November, two Palestinian Americans, Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, were told they wouldn’t be allowed on board a plane because another passenger felt afraid after hearing them speaking Arabic. “If that person doesn’t feel safe, let them take the bus. We’re American citizens just like everybody else,” one said to a Southwest Airlines gate agent, according to NBC Philadelphia. Eventually they were allowed back on board, but several passengers demanded that Khalil show them what was in a small white box he carried. “So I shared my baklava with them,” he told the NBC affiliate.
“Flying while Muslim is as much about language as it is appearance and perception, and the disproportionate disciplining of passengers,” says CAIR’s Zahra Billoo, adding that delays and harassment are becoming routine for the Muslim community in America. Billoo says that while these stories are getting more play in the press lately, her organization doesn’t have comprehensive data to show whether such incidents are on the rise. “We hear more complaints anecdotally than formally,” she says.
For Makhzoomi—and several others—what he wants most from the airline is a formal apology. Southwest, nearly two weeks after the incident, issued a statement, noting, “We provided the passenger an immediate refund of his unused ticket and regret any less than positive experience a Customer has onboard our aircraft.” Makhzoomi told Mother Jones that he’s sharing his story because he wants to show that these types of events, as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians and pundits, are “affecting the minorities of this country.” “Some people dislike Muslims. Maybe they don’t like my language,” he says, before adding, “You cannot degrade me as a human being, living in the United States of America. It’s time to solve what we have going on in this country.”
Shortly after news of Makhzoomi’s ordeal broke, The Daily Show put out a video, offering some “advice” to Muslim flyers:
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Southwest’s statement about the passenger’s knowledge of Arabic.