In-Flight Islamophobia

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Less than 24 hours after speaking to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at a World Affairs Council dinner in Los Angeles about counterinsurgency efforts in his home state of Iraq, 26-year-old UC Berkeley senior Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight under suspicion of terrorism.

Why? Because he was speaking Arabic, on a plane, in America.

Traveling from Los Angeles to Oakland, Makhzoomi boarded a flight on April 6 and took a call from his uncle in Baghdad, Iraq while waiting for takeoff. After his conversation about the previous evening and his upcoming graduation he said, in his native Arabic, “if God is willing (insha’Allah insha’Allah), I will call you when I arrive.”

His arrival back, however, was delayed. A fellow passenger left the plane when she thought she heard the student say “shahid,” the Arabic word for “martyrdom,” and promptly fetched security. Within minutes Makhzoomi was escorted from the flight.

He was eventually cleared of suspicions and released that day, but not until after being searched with police dogs in front of dozens of onlookers in the terminal and then taken to a private room to be questioned by three FBI agents. In total, the ordeal lasted over three hours.

Makhzoomi maintains “martyrdom” never came out of his mouth.

An Iraqi refugee, Makhzoomi fled his home country in 2002 and was granted amnesty in the U.S. six years ago. His father, a diplomat in Baghdad, was abducted and killed by Saddam Hussein’s secret police for exposing corruption in the regime, Makhzoomi told multiple news outlets. Makhzoomi fled Iraqi terrorism only to be profiled as an extremist in the nation he now calls home.

“The humiliation made me so afraid because it brought all of these memories back to me,” Makhzoomi told the Daily Californian. “I escaped Iraq because of the war, because of Saddam and what he did to my father. When I got home, I just slept for a few days.”

The assumption that Makhzoomi posed a threat to his flight simply underscores the broad increasing criminalization of Muslims in this country. This kind of profiling of a fellow UC student is alarming, and is the latest in a long list of Islamophobic responses by domestic airlines.

Head of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Zahra Billoo confirmed to CNN that confrontations like these are frequent for many traveling Muslims.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed 2,977 Americans, left a lasting scar on the American psyche. The incident, while terrible, has long served as America’s scapegoat and motivation for unjust discrimination. Fifteen years later, Muslims continue to be routinely profiled as a threat to national security, especially when aboard an airplane.

“The challenges of flying while Muslim are not new,” Billoo told CNN. A week after Makhzoomi’s experience, Hakima Abdulle, a Somali woman wearing a hijab, was removed from a Southwest flight headed to Seattle “without any reasonable explanation,” according to another CAIR official. This issue is not limited to Southwest Airlines. Last February, a Muslim woman claimed harassment on a Delta Airlines flight while wearing a hijab, and a Muslim family was escorted off of a United Airlines flight after asking for assistance with a child’s booster seat.

During his time in the U.S., the fourth-year double major in political science and Near Eastern studies, devoted substantial energy to the fight against sectarian violence in the Middle East — even penning a Huffington Post article titled, “Iraqi National Reconciliation: a way to tackle IS.”

Even after clearing him of any wrongdoing, the airline refused to fly him but refunded his ticket.

“We provided the passenger an immediate refund of his unused ticket and regret any less than positive experience a Customer has onboard our aircraft,” Southwest Airlines stated on April 18. A month later, they have still not issued a public apology for the incident.

Meanwhile, Makhzoomi has received support from Ban Ki Moon’s office as well as other local politicians.

“All I want is an apology,” Makhzoomi told CNN. “We as a people, Iraqi, American, Iranian, we share one thing in common, and that is our dignity.”

The suspicion of Muslims on airplanes is not at all a rational fear, but rather the byproduct of U.S.-dominated rhetoric surrounding Islamic terrorism and the culture of fear it has created. Islam is a religion of peace. Those who conflate its tenets with terror do not represent the billions of followers who condemn extremism.

Despite what the media portrays, death by Islamic terrorism, on an airplane or otherwise, is not statistically realistic. You are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. As Omar Alnatour, a Palestinian-American student, wrote for Huffington Post, “You are more likely to die from choking on airplane food than from a terrorist attack on an airplane that involves a Muslim.”

If an individual of any other religion were to mention their deity on a flight — in any language — they wouldn’t be removed, searched, and detained for three hours.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. That’s 23 percent of the world’s population. The idea that the actions of a minute percent of them somehow justifies the profiling and humiliation of individuals for expressing tenets of their culture is not just ridiculous — it’s downright dehumanizing.