'Humiliated' student thrown off plane for speaking Arabic

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A university student who was taken off a US flight after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic has said he suffered an emotional breakdown because he felt singled out and humiliated.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old from Iraq, was removed from a Southwest Airlines this month after he spoke to his uncle on the phone in Arabic.

Makhzoomi, who moved to the US as a refugee, said he called his uncle in Baghdad after taking his seat when he noticed a fellow passenger staring at him.

'Threatening comments'

Makhzoomi was excited after attending an international affairs conference that included a speech by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, so as soon as he got on the plane, he made the call to talk about him.

"I was speaking Arabic with him. Explaining the details about the event," Makhzoomi told Al Jazeera. "All of a sudden lady in front of me started staring at me and I got off phone. My uncle told me to call him when I land and I said, inshallah, inshallah, I will call you'."

He told the Associated Press news agency that most of the conversation was mundane, covering subjects like who was there and what the food was like, but at one point he said someone had asked Ban about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

A woman sitting nearby reported him to Southwest staff and he was escorted from the plane.

Southwest said in a statement on Monday that its employees had acted within protocol in response to another Arabic-speaking passenger's report of what were perceived to be threatening comments.

"It was the content of the passenger's conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation," the airline said.

'No, I don't have a knife'

After Makhzoomi was taken off the plane, he was questioned by police officers, an experience he told Al Jazeera he found traumatic. 

"They put my head on the wall and they put my hand behind my back," he said. "He pressed on my finger, he was reaching my private parts in front of everyone. He asked me if I have a knife that I might want to cut him." 

The student said that, in that moment, he had tears in his eyes.

"I told him, no, I don't have a knife".

Catharine Wagner of the American Civil Liberties Union told Al Jazeera that a company cannot legally discriminate against one customer by acting on another customer’s prejudices.

"You can’t kick a black person out of a restaurant if a white customer is bothered by them being there," she said.

"So, in this case, for Southwest to have another customer complain that someone was speaking Arabic in a way that made her suspicious and then just act on that really was wrong and really did a disservice." 

There have, though, been at least six cases of Muslims being removed from flights in the US this year.

In March, a Muslim family was taken off a United Airlines flight in Chicago. Last month, a Jet Blue flight attendant asked police to remove two Muslim women after their flight landed because, she said, they were staring at her.

"Islamophobia, does not serve to fight terror," Makhzoomi said.

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