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Airlines in the US are still kicking Muslim passengers off their planes for no reason

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A Muslim college student in California ended up getting kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight and questioned by the FBI after he called his uncle on the phone and spoke to him in Arabic.

The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, came to the US as an Iraqi refugee in 2010, according to the New York Times. The night before he got on the April 6 flight, he'd attended a dinner with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Makhzoomi told CNN, and he called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about the experience.

Makhzoomi is asking for a public apology from Southwest. But if history is any guide, he probably won't get one. Reports of passengers reporting other passengers who are speaking Arabic or wearing headscarves have been getting more attention the past few months — part of a growing wave of Islamophobia in the US that encompasses both violence and inconvenience:

  • A Somali-American woman wearing a hijab was asked to get off a Southwest Airlines flight at Ronald Reagan National Airport on Wednesday after she tried to trade seats with another passenger.
  • United Airlines in Chicago kicked off an Arab-American family bound for Washington, DC, on March 20. United offered them five free round-trip tickets to make up for it, but the family says they'll be filing a formal complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • In November, four passengers who looked Middle Eastern, according to others on the plane, were removed from a Spirit Airlines flight in Baltimore. At the time, Spirit said it acted out of "an abundance of caution."
  • Two Palestinian-American men — one of them the owner of a Philadelphia pizza shop — had their boarding delayed on a Southwest flight in November after passengers overheard them speaking Arabic.
  • Bilal Rana, the president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s Youth Association, was escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight from Newark to Houston in November and questioned by the FBI after a "suspicious passenger" was reported on his flight.

In every case, the airline maintains that race and religion don't play a role. "Our crew made the decision to investigate a report of potentially threatening comments overheard onboard our aircraft," Southwest said in a statement to CNN. "A group of our employees including the flight crew made the decision to review the situation."

So Makhzoomi's quest for a public apology is likely to remain unfulfilled: When other passengers report "suspicious activity" — even if it's just a conversation in another language — airlines are still taking their word for it.

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