- - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Critics are assailing airlines for removing individuals from flights for allegedly no other reason than “flying while Muslim.” In a notable incident, a student of UC Berkley, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, was removed from a Southwest flight while on his way back from a meeting at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Makhzoomi told The Daily Californian that he was removed from the flight because he was speaking on the phone in Arabic.

According to The Daily Californian “Makhzoomi alleged that one police officer publicly searched his genital area and asked him if he was hiding a knife anywhere.”

“That is when I couldn’t handle it and my eyes began to water,” Mr. Makhzoomi told the Daily Californian. “The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me and the humiliation made me so afraid.”

Southwest Airlines said in a statement: “It was the content of the passenger’s conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation. We provided the passenger an immediate refund of his unused ticket. Federal law enforcement agents became involved and conducted their own investigation.”

The FBI cleared Mr. Makhzoomi to fly, and expressed no concerns about the content of Mr. Makhzoomi’s words. He then booked another flight to return home the same day with another airline.

“The behavior adopted by Southwest Airlines, which targets Arab and Muslim passengers, is very problematic. The airlines are contributing to the growing anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia which adversely impacts millions of Americans every day. It is our hope that Southwest no longer allows xenophobia to be part of its company culture,” said Abed Ayoub, National Legal & Policy Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Southwest was involved in a similar incident a last week, when it removed a Muslim woman, Hakima Abdulle, from a flight after she asked another passenger if they were willing to trade seats. When the passenger agreed, a flight attendant had Ms. Abdulle removed from the flight, despite the company’s long-standing policy of unassigned seats.

Ms. Abdulle was questioned and similarly cleared by law enforcement officials to fly without restriction.

In each occurrence, Southwest has claimed to follow its procedures appropriately, although the text of these procedures has not been released to the public.

There are multiple reports of similar incidents with other airlines as well. In March, a family of Muslims was removed from a United Airlines flight after  Eaman-Amy Saad Shebley requested an additional strap for her child’s booster seat, according to ABC News. After complying with the flight attendants instructions, the family was removed from the flight for what they claim are “discriminatory” Muslims.

United Airlines told ABC News the family was removed because of a safety concern over the child’s seat, although it is unclear how such a concern could result in removal from a flight. Ms. Shebley has posted videos of the dispute on social media where she can be heard asking if the behavior is intended to be discriminatory.

Last year, on another United Airlines flight, a Muslim woman named Tahera Ahmad was told by a flight attendant that she was not allowed to have an unopened soda can because she might use it as a weapon. The same flight attendant was willing to give Ms. Ahmad a used soda can. Ms. Ahmed recounts the experience on Facebook:

“I am sitting on a United airlines flight in the air 30,000ft above and I am in tears of humiliation from discrimination. The flight attendant asked me what I would like to drink and I requested a can of diet coke. She brought me a can that was open so I requested an unopened can due to hygienic reasons. She said no one has consumed from the drink, but I requested an unopened can. She responded, “Well I’m sorry I just can’t give you an unopened can so no diet coke for you.” She then brought the man sitting next to me a can of UNOPENED beer. So I asked her again why she refused to give me an UNOPENED can of diet coke. She said, “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a WEAPON on the plane.” So I told her that she was clearly discriminating against me because she gave the man next to me an unopened can of beer. She looked at his can, quickly grabbed it and opened it and said, “it’s so you don’t use it as a weapon.” Apphauled [sic] at her behavior I asked people around me if they witnessed this discriminatory and disgusting behavior and the man sitting in an aisle across from me yelled out to me, “you Moslem, you need to shut the [expletive] up.” I said, “what?!” He then leaned over from his seat, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “yes you know you would use it as a WEAPON so shut the [expletive] up.” I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes. I can’t help but cry on this plane because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay. ‪#‎IslamophobiaISREAL”

According to CNN “United spokesman Charles Hobart said that a flight attendant had tried several times to accommodate Ahmad’s beverage request but that there was a ‘misunderstanding.’ “

Approximately two months before the incident, Ms. Ahmad was honored at the White house as a leading Muslim female in the United States.

The airline was lampooned in a bit by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. “I am shocked,” Mr. Stewart said on an episode, pausing for comedic effect, “by what goes on in coach.”

United Airlines later apologized in a press release.

In January, a group of Sikhs were removed from an American Airlines flight without explanation and subsequently filed a lawsuit. Their complaint alleged “When the group asked the agent whether their appearance had contributed to their removal, ‘being that they are dark skinned and had beards,’ the agent responded that their appearance “did not help’ ” according to CNN.

In November, when a passenger complained that a Muslim man was watching the news on a mobile device, Spirit Airlines diverted the plane from takeoff and removed four passengers.

According to The Washington Post “The flight attendant notified the captain of the passenger’s concerns and ‘out of an abundance of caution, the plane returned to the gate,’ Spirit Airlines spokesman Stephen Schuler said in a statement.”

The airline did not explain the nature of the caution, or how the passenger’s use of a mobile device related to the airline’s actions.

Southwest had another incident in November where it attempted to ban two men from boarding a flight when another passenger became fearful because the men were speaking Arabic. The two men, Maher Khalil and Anas Ayyad, were eventually allowed to board the flight after calling the police to report on the discriminatory practice.

Southwest acknowledged the dispute in a statement, but took no further action.

In 2006, six Muslim religious scholars were removed from a US Airways flight for sitting separately, requesting seatbelt extensions and speaking Arabic. In 2009 a U.S. District Court allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the airline and law enforcement officials, ruling “… No reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause.”

US Airways settled the case.

The phrase “flying while Muslim” was first coined by the New York Times in 2001 when they interviewed Zaheer Ali, a then graduate student of Columbia University. Mr. Ali describes himself as black and Muslim, and told the New York Times “‘I’ve faced both kinds of profiling — driving while black and flying while Muslim.”

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