Civil rights group files complaint after UC Berkeley student’s removal from Southwest Airlines flight

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Months after then-UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after a fellow passenger overheard him speaking Arabic, a civil rights advocacy group has filed a complaint against the airline alleging racial and religious profiling.

The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR-SFBA, filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings on Wednesday to encourage a federal investigation into Makhzoomi’s case.

In the complaint, the group alleges Southwest Airlines violated a U.S. law prohibiting air carriers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry and calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to “hold Southwest Airlines accountable for their actions against Makhzoomi,” according to a CAIR press release.

Makhzoomi, an Iraqi refugee, was removed from his flight after a fellow passenger heard him say “inshallah,” which translates to “if God is willing.” Moments later, Makhzoomi was removed from flight 4260 and, in the hours that followed, was questioned by the FBI and refused service by Southwest Airlines.

Though Makhzoomi said he was hesitant to file the complaint, he hopes it will encourage Southwest Airlines to change its policies so it can become a lesson to other airlines.

“They need to revise their laws and revise their training … to hold them accountable for what they did to me and not to do it again with other people,” he said.

Southwest Airlines issued a statement Friday that said an internal review of the incident concluded its response followed protocol, and that it was the content of Makhzoomi’s conversation, rather than the language used, that prompted the report and resulting investigation.

“Our Crew responded by following protocol, as required by federal law, to investigate any potential threat to civil aviation,” the statement read. “We regret any less than positive experience a Customer has on Southwest. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”

The national organization CAIR has noted in a different complaint at least five other incidents of alleged racial and religious profiling involving Muslim-American passengers who were removed from U.S. flights, according to Saba Maher, civil rights coordinator for the San Francisco CAIR chapter.

I think this one particular case provides us an opportunity to think about what’s the broader climate of fear and intimidation that leads people to be fearful of a passenger on a flight simply because he is speaking Arabic,” said Charles Hirschkind, a campus associate professor of anthropology who studies contemporary developments in Islam. “This case should be an invitation to think about that broader problem.”

While the complaint is undergoing review, Maher said the group is “exploring their options” regarding future potential litigation against Southwest Airlines.

Since the incident in April, 26-year-old Makhzoomi has graduated from UC Berkeley and is in the process of applying to graduate school. He said what he wants most is an apology from Southwest Airlines.

“What I want is just to solve this peacefully,” he said. “Say, ‘We are sorry we discriminated against you, we shouldn’t have treated you like this, (and) it’s a problem we have to recognize.’ This is how it should be.”

Contact Mariah De Zuzuarregui and Maya Eliahou at [email protected].