Berkeley Weighs Protest Letter to Southwest Airlines After 'Arabic' Incident

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi stands at a Model United Nations event in San Francisco. (Khairuldeen Makhzoomi)

Update, 1:15 p.m. Wednesday: Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington reports he's holding off on his suggestion to send an official letter to Southwest Airlines protesting its treatment of an Arabic-speaking UC Berkeley student and asking the company to implement new anti-bias training.

In an email to KQED, Worthington said:

"I held the item over for two weeks as a courtesy because Southwestern has communicated with us that they are actively considering multiple effective ways to respond to the situation. They appear to be looking at what to say to Khairuldeen Makhzoomi and what training adjustments would be appropriate.

"If they refuse to apologize or do not change trainings, we will send a letter to complain. If they take reasonable steps forward we would turn our letter into a thank you."

Original post Tuesday, May 10: Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington says that what happened to Khairuldeen Makhzoomi on a Southwest Airlines jet last month shouldn't happen again to anyone.

Makhzoomi is the UC Berkeley student who was removed from a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Oakland -- and then subjected to a search and interrogation by the FBI -- after a fellow passenger overheard him speaking Arabic.

“When you hear about instances like that, you need to try to change your policies to try to prevent it as much as possible,” says Worthington. “We’re trying to do that within our city policies, and we think it’s very important that Southwest Airlines do the same.”

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The Berkeley City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on whether to send the letter.

The airline said in a statement after the April 6 incident became public that an Arabic-speaking passenger reported "what were perceived to be threatening comments" to the plane's crew.

The statement added that Southwest "responded by following protocol, as required by federal law, to investigate and report to law enforcement agencies any potential threat to civil aviation," and that the airline "would not remove a passenger from a flight without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures."

Southwest didn't respond to requests to elaborate on those procedures.  Marketplace's Tony Wagner reached a similar dead-end with Southwest and five other major airlines.

Makhzoomi says he believes his use of a simple Arabic phrase -- "Inshallah" -- got him kicked off his flight. It means "if God wills" and serves a function roughly equivalent to "knock on wood."

And if you've grown up in an Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim country, as Makhzoomi did -- he's an Iraqi refugee -- chances are the phrase is tossed around your home quite frequently.

Perhaps if Makhzoomi had said “knock on wood,” he would have flown out of Los Angeles without incident.

Instead, in an Arabic phone conversation with his uncle before his plane took off, Makhzoomi told him “inshallah," he would call him as soon as he landed safely.

The fellow passenger overheard, and soon, Makhzoomi was sitting in a room being interrogated by the FBI.

"At some point they thought I'm a terrorist," says Makhzoomi. "When they asked me about my bag, when they searched me. They treated me as a terrorist, honestly."

Makhzoomi says he was searched, patted down and sniffed by security dogs. He was repeatedly asked if he had additional luggage, if he carried a knife, and if he could share "everything he knew about martyrdom."

Makhzoomi says he was upset by the distrust and disrespect he experienced right from the get-go.

“If you took me out, and you spoke with me in a very nice tone, in a very respectful tone, asking me about myself, just saying,  'This is just a security procedure. ... Would you like to tell me about yourself, and what's your name, and what you do, and what you study?' I would show him my ID and all of that, and they would know that that person is wrong,” says Makhzoomi. "They didn't treat me as a human being."

Makhzoomi mentions his encounter with the Southwest employee who escorted him off the plane.

The employee -- whom the airline's statement described as an "Arabic-speaking Southwest manager" -- attempted to speak to Makhzoomi in Arabic. But Makhzoomi says the employee’s Arabic was so terrible he couldn’t understand it and had to ask to be addressed in English instead.

Switching to English, the employee asked Makhzoomi about his phone conversation. Makhzoomi explained he'd been talking to his uncle in Baghdad, telling him about a dinner event he'd attended at the World Affairs Council that featured Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations.

He showed the employee video footage of the dinner that he'd recorded on his phone.

Makhzoomi says what happened next shocked him.

The employee began yelling at him, he says, asking,  “Why would you speak in that language? Don't you know that [Arabic] is dangerous to speak in the airports, and what's happening in the airports around the world?”

Makhzoomi initially apologized, but when the manager began blaming him for the delay, he says he'd had enough. He replied that he wasn't the cause for the delay, but that it was Islamophobia at work.

At that point, things got worse for Makhzoomi. He was told he would not be flown through Southwest Airlines that day. An officer called the FBI.

"It left me nothing but to shed some tears because I cannot do anything," says Makhzoomi, "When you feel that you are so oppressed that any move you will do, it will end up with you either shot or end up in jail."

Released, Makhzoomi flew back home on a different airline. When he got to Berkeley, he says, he spent the first few days in bed, wondering what he must have done wrong to have been treated the way Southwest treated him.

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