Columns, Opinion

RENNER: Southwest Airlines removing Arabic-speaking passenger perpetuates Islamophobia

A University of California, Berkeley student was removed from his Southwest flight for speaking Arabic on the phone with his uncle, The New York Times reported.

As the plane sat idle before departure, the student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, was approached by an Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee. The employee first greeted Makhzoomi in Arabic and then switched to English to question the 26-year-old college senior on why he was speaking Arabic on the plane.

“I said to him, ‘This is what Islamophobia got this country into,’ and that made him so angry. That is when he told me I could not go back on the plane,” Makhzoomi told the Times in an article published on Sunday. Makhzoomi told SFGate that he was removed from the plane and “interrogated at length, sniffed by police dogs and subjected to an intimate body search in front of passersby,” before being further questioned by FBI agents.

“I had an emotional breakdown and cried a little bit,” Makhzoomi told SFGate. “I was so afraid. I was so scared.”

After agents further probed at his personal life at length, he was finally released and able to make it to his destination eight hours later than planned, according to the Times.

The sad irony here is that Makhzoomi was returning to Oakland from Los Angeles after attending a dinner and lecture event at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, a nonpartisan organization “dedicated to furthering global understanding,” that welcomes “a wide variety of opinions” from its members. This institution works to bring together the brightest minds from all over the world in the fields of politics, business and art. Makhzoomi had the honor of being present for a lecture from Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations.

As a student of “political science and near Eastern languages and literature” and having come to the United States only six years ago as a refugee from Iraq, Makhzoomi is the epitome of an invaluable member of American society. These qualities reaffirm his right to be here, just as much as any natural-born citizen. Even in light of the ridiculously inappropriate way he was treated, Makhzoomi still kept his composure and told SFGate, “The message of Islam is forgiveness. That’s all I want.”

Southwest Airlines’ response failed to meet him at this level.

“[We] regret any less than positive experience a Customer has onboard our aircraft … Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind,” a statement released by the airline on Monday read. According to The Daily Californian, “Makhzoomi called Southwest on Monday and they ensured his status was clear but offered him no apology.”

Makhzoomi said it best himself, that “Islamophobia does not serve to fight terror. It plays right into the Islamic State game of striking fear among us.” This is certainly not the first incident of its kind and certainly won’t be the last, but the lack of an appropriate response from Southwest is detrimental to not only the Muslim cause, but also the cause of equality in America as a whole.

In order to make progress in this ongoing fight, it’s imperative for big names such as Southwest to be exemplary and own up to mistakes such as these. It is fair to argue that precautions are necessary amid the uncertainty we all feel worldwide. However, it is despicable to tear down one thing we do know to be certain: the preservation of indispensable human rights.

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