A Muslim student who was ejected from a Southwest Airlines plane after speaking Arabic has filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was “publicly humiliated”, searched and interrogated for hours after being removed from the flight before take-off at Los Angeles International Airport.
The American citizen, who came to the US as an Iraqi refugee, spoke in Arabic to his uncle in Baghdad during a brief phone call while waiting after boarding the plane in April 2016.
They discussed his excitement about talking to UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, during a dinner the previous day.
Minutes after hanging up the phone, Mr Makhzoomi said, he was “singled out” and removed from the flight by two police officers and Southwest employee Shoaib Ahmed.
According to the lawsuit, Mr Ahmed, who is also named as a defendant, said: “Why are you talking in Arabic? You know the environment is very dangerous.”
Mr Makhzoomi, then a 26-year-old public policy student at the University of California at Berkeley, said he faced hours of questioning by local police and the FBI and was “invasively searched” before being released.
The student said one agent told him: “You need to be very honest with us with what you said about the martyrs. Tell us everything you know about the martyrs.”
He was released soon after explaining his use of the word “inshallah”, an Islamic phrase that translates literally as “God willing” that is often colloquially used to mean “hopefully”.
But Southwest refused to rebook him on another flight and instead refunded his ticket. He later flew home on Delta Air Lines.
The lawsuit adds: “Southwest Airlines discriminated against and wrongfully removed Mr Makhzoomi from his flight for no reason other than for speaking in his native language. In doing so, the airline, by and through its agents and employees, intentionally violated Mr Makhzoomi’s civil rights.
“Southwest was and is well aware of the prevalent stereotypes and sentiments associated with Islamophobia and knew or should have known that they cannot simply remove Arabic speaking passengers without having a valid reason or concern.”
It said “no passenger or agent of Southwest actually observed any safety concerns or contentious communications… except for the fact that Plaintiff appeared to be Middle Eastern or Muslim”.
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Mr Makhzoomi, now a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington DC, is seeking compensation and punitive damages for civil rights violations, discrimination and emotional distress.
He is receiving legal assistance from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which said Mr Makhzoomi tried to resolve the dispute out of court but Southwest’s response proved “unsatisfactory”.
“We want to make sure that what happened to Mr Makhzoomi does not happen to others,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the council’s San Francisco Bay area office.
Southwest said it could not comment on active legal proceedings.
The airline has previously said its staff investigated “potentially threatening comments” made by Mr Makhzoomi. A spokesman added its crew followed proper procedure and that the “content” of Mr Makhzoomi’s talk with his uncle, not the language, had prompted action.
He added: “Since that time, we have researched the event internally and also reached out to the customer.
“We regret any less than positive experience a customer has on Southwest. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”