Earlier this month, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi found himself at a gathering with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He had been invited to the dinner-and-lecture event in Los Angeles by a friend who works for the World Affairs Council, and he was thrilled.
The University of California at Berkeley senior is a double major, after all, in political science and Near Eastern studies. At the close of Ban’s speech, Makhzoomi recounted Sunday night in a phone interview with The Washington Post, he stood up to ask the secretary general about Iraqi popular mobilization units, militia groups fighting against the Islamic State.
The question was greeted by applause from around the room, followed by a lengthy response from the U.N. chief. It was the kind of exchange that Makhzoomi lives for: He came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee six years ago, and his research now centers on how life can be improved in his home country.
But the next day, April 6, the 26-year-old’s fortunes took a sharp turn.
Makhzoomi had just settled into his seat on a Southwest Airlines flight when he pulled out his cellphone to call his uncle in Baghdad. His uncle is a political analyst, so Makhzoomi wanted to discuss the previous night’s event with him.
He was speaking into the phone in Arabic when he noticed that the woman in the seat in front of him was turned with her neck craned in his direction, staring.
Feeling discomfited, Makhzoomi cut his conversation short. “Inshallah,” he told his uncle, using a customary Arabic phrase meaning “God willing.” “I’ll call you when I land.”
After Makhzoomi hung up, he noticed that the woman had left her seat and was making her way up the aisle, weaving around passengers who were still boarding.
His sense of unease deepened. A thought occurred to him: “I hope she’s not reporting me.”
Except, Makhzoomi is now certain, that is precisely what happened. Shortly after the woman’s departure, he said a Southwest employee informed him, “Sir, you need to step out of the plane right now.”
Makhzoomi was then led off the plane to a hallway by the boarding gate, where three police officers were awaiting him. He said the Southwest employee appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent and began speaking to him in Arabic. The employee told him he used to live in Dubai and asked him where he was from. At Makhzoomi’s urging, the employee switched back to English.
“Why would you speak in Arabic on the airplane?” the employee asked him. “It’s dangerous. You know the environment around the airport. You understand what’s going on in this country.”
The employee’s tone made Makhzoomi feel demeaned, he said. He was immediately deferential.
“I’m sorry,” Makhzoomi responded. “I shouldn’t have done that.” But the employee continued to be accusatory, and Makhzoomi said he grew frustrated. Exasperated, the college student said, “This is what Islamophobia has done.”
This angered the employee only further, he said. According to Makhzoomi, one of the police officers then said into his radio, “Call the FBI.”
With the plane long having taken off without him, Makhzoomi was joined by more police officers, sniffer dogs and, eventually, three FBI agents. At one point, a police officer pressed his head against the wall and restrained his hands behind his back, he said. When the authorities asked him whether he had any weapons on him, Makhzoomi said he teared up. “I don’t have a knife,” he repeated.
The FBI agents took him into a separate room and began the questioning anew.
“Okay, you need to be honest with me,” Makhzoomi recalled one agent saying to him. “Tell us everything you know about martyrdom.”
Makhzoomi was stunned. “I looked at her and opened my eyes very wide,” he told The Post. “I told her I never mentioned this word, ever. You can call my uncle — I have never mentioned that word. It’s associated with jihad and terrorism and gives a false image of Islam.”
He said the agents were interested in his family’s ties to Iraq. His mother, brother and Makhzoomi fled the country for Jordan in 2002, a year after his father was executed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Makhzoomi told The Post.
He said his father was a former Iraqi diplomat who was jailed in Abu Ghraib, then killed for what authorities there called a “security threat.” The family now lives in Berkeley, Calif.
After further questioning, the FBI agent let him go but told him he could not fly with Southwest, Makhzoomi said. Makhzoomi was directed to get his refund from the same Southwest employee who asked him to leave the plane.
The employee wordlessly swiped Makhzoomi’s credit card. At last, he booked a flight with Delta Air Lines, arriving back in Berkeley nine hours later than he originally intended. Before his itinerary was disrupted, he had been planning to attend classes that same afternoon.
Southwest wrote in an email statement to The Post that its “crew made the decision to investigate a passenger report of potentially threatening comments overheard onboard our aircraft. … While local law enforcement followed up with that passenger in our gate area, the flight departed.”
“We regret any less than positive experience a Customer has on Southwest,” the statement said. “Safety is our primary focus, and our Employees are trained to make decisions to safeguard the security of our Crews and Customers on every flight. We would not remove a passenger from a flight without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures.”
The company cited privacy reasons for not commenting specifically about Makhzoomi’s case but said: “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
“We were asked to respond, and we determined no further action was necessary,” Ari DeKofsky, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Makhzoomi said he has attempted to reach the airline three times and received only cursory responses. Southwest said in its email that the company cannot find any “record of the Customer contacting us.” It said it has “tried multiple times to reach him after learning of his disappointment” from an article in the UC Berkeley student newspaper.
Stories of Muslims being removed from commercial flights have become more common alongside an escalating fear of Islamic State terrorism.
In the same week that Makhzoomi’s incident took place, a hijab-wearing woman from Maryland was ordered off a Southwest flight bound for Seattle. In late March, an Arab American family was removed from a United Airlines flight because of safety concerns. The airline said the decision was prompted by the family’s inadequate child-booster seat, but the family believes they suffered discrimination because the mother wears a headscarf.
“We are tired of Muslim-looking passengers being removed from flights for the flimsiest reasons, under a cryptic claim of ‘security,'” Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Chicago, said in a statement.
As for Makhzoomi, he said he does not currently have plans to take legal action, even though several lawyers have offered their services. For now, he said he just wants Southwest to publicly acknowledge its error.
“I came here to the U.S. because I believed in the values of this country,” Makhzoomi said. “Islamophobia does not serve to fight terror. It plays right into the Islamic State game of striking fear among us.”