On Tuesday, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines for an April 2016 incident in which airline officials removed him from a Oakland-bound flight for speaking Arabic.
The lawsuit alleges that Shoaib Ahmed, an airline employee, along with two police officers, removed Makhzoomi from the flight after another passenger reportedly complained to a flight attendant about his “potentially threatening” comments. The supposed comments stemmed from a phone conversation Makhzoomi was having with his uncle in Arabic before the plane was due to depart from Los Angeles.
“Shortly after taking his seat, Mr. Makhzoomi was approached by a Southwest Airlines official and local law enforcement officers, removed from the plane, interrogated, searched, publicly humiliated and denied further travel on the airline,” the lawsuit alleges. “Southwest Airlines discriminated against and wrongfully removed Mr. Makhzoomi from his flight for no reason other than for speaking in his native language.”
“Through no fault of his own, he sustained public humiliation and continuing emotional trauma,” it adds.
In an April statement following the incident, Southwest Airlines indicated that the concerns raised by a fellow Arabic-speaking passenger were not because of the language, but because of what Makhzoomi, then a student at the University of California at Berkeley, was saying in the conversation. Per Makhzoomi, he was just talking to his uncle about an invitation-only event where he met and dined with then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
“[Makhzoomi] was excited to share with his uncle that he had the opportunity to meet the UN Secretary General and even asked a question about the secretary’s plans to combat the Islamic State,” the lawsuit states.
Makhzoomi told Reuters that he’d been “singled out” on the plane for doing nothing wrong at all. He later recalled Ahmed, a defendant in the suit, saying, “Why are you talking in Arabic? You know the environment is very dangerous.”
According to Makhzoomi, once he was removed from the plane and searched and questioned by six officers in front of travelers at Los Angeles International Airport, he was taken into an interrogation room by FBI agents to be questioned “for hours.”
Though Makhzoomi was ultimately released, he was not allowed to rebook his flight with Southwest Airlines — they instead gave him a refund. He later wound up flying home on a Delta Airlines flight.
“What Mr. Makhzoomi experienced is the essence of religious profiling and every Muslim airline passenger’s worst nightmare,” Zahra Billoo, Makhzoomi’s lawyer, said in a statement. “Southwest Airlines removed Mr. Makhzoomi from a flight and turned him in to local and federal law enforcement for no reason other than his spoken language.”
Makhzoomi is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations, discrimination and emotional distress stemming from the incident.
The Dallas-based airliner has not released a statement regarding the lawsuit.