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UC Berkeley student taken off Southwest flight after speaking Arabic

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 taxis to a gate Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 taxis to a gate Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/AP

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UC Berkeley student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was ordered off a Southwest flight earlier this month, shortly after he made a phone call waiting for takeoff. 

He was speaking to his uncle in Arabic, and signed off with the customary greeting, “inshallah.”

Makhzoomi ended the call, but shortly after he was taken off the plane and questioned, first by an airline employee, then again by law enforcement. 

The way Makhzoomi was treated is deeply disturbing to many Muslims.

For more, Take Two spoke to  Zahra Billoo, executive director for the San Francisco Bay offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Her organization has been in close contact with Makhzoomi.

What can you tell us about Khairuldeen Makhzoomi?

“He moved here as an Iraqi refugee, he is a student at UC Berkeley; he is deeply involved in student and community organizations. He was actually on his way home from a UN-related luncheon and unfortunately had this happen.”

Mr. Makhzoomi ends the conversation with “inshallah.” What do you know about what happened next? 

So inshallah is like, “God willing,” and what I’ve said to people is — you know —  I’ll say to my mom when I get off the phone, ‘yes mom, yes mom, yes mom,’ right? So he’s saying to his uncle, ‘inshallah, inshallah,’ and he’s ending the conversation. It’s a cordial, excited conversation. He notices that this woman is talking to the flight staff. He doesn’t realize immediately that it would be about him, and then they approach him. They ask him to come off the plane.”

Let’s say you’re on a plane and you’re concerned. You hear someone speaking Arabic … you don’t know what the context is, and there are going to be people who feel the sense of fear. What can be done to make sure that you don’t wind up in a situation where — as it sounds — an innocent man is getting detained?

“I think it’s really important, one, that our fellow passengers not engage in profiling or racist behavior. Just because someone is speaking in a language that I do not understand doesn’t mean that they’re a threat to me … and that needs to become normalized. That kind of racism doesn’t make us any safer.”

It’s somewhat reminiscent, Zahra, of what many African-American men and women have been told, especially in terms of police officers. “Just keep your head down …” Do you feel that right now there is a similar thread among [Muslim-American men to just] keep your head down at all costs?  And what toll does that take?

“I’ve heard that a lot. We’ve had the conversation among women of like if you don’t wear a headscarf, are you safer? As a Muslim male, can you pass? Do not talk Arabic in public. I don’t think that that’s the case with Mr. Makhzoomi. We are really proud of how courageous he’s been. He’s keeping his head up and speaking to local and national media about what happened.” 

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.