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The controversy over YouTube star Adam Saleh's ejection from a Delta flight, explained

Is this prankster lying about being targeted for speaking Arabic? He says no. His previous videos say something else.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

On December 21, YouTube star Adam Saleh was asked to leave a Delta Airlines flight, allegedly because another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic while talking on the phone to his mother.

Saleh’s experience fits into a larger pattern of Muslims being asked to leave flights after making passengers uncomfortable. And now Saleh, who filmed part of the incident and spread it on social media, is at the center of an international debate over Islamophobia and the unfair treatment of Muslims by airlines.

But the story isn’t that simple. Saleh’s YouTube stardom is built around pranks — and he has a history of staging fake scenarios involving his Muslim identity to provoke conversations about race relations. With Saleh and Delta making contradicting claims, his reputation is further complicating an already controversial situation.

Was Saleh the victim of racial profiling? Or is he propagating a hoax?

Saleh’s viral video appears to show upset passengers protesting his deplaning

Saleh claims to fly around 20 times a month. But his Delta Airlines flight out of London on the morning of December 21 sparked a viral storm of protest after Saleh was allegedly kicked off the flight for speaking Arabic.

Saleh filmed Delta crew asking him to leave the plane while passengers displayed mixed reactions. He then shared the video on Twitter, where it instantly went viral:

After landing, Saleh posted a longer version of the video he shot while he was being escorted from the plane.

Saleh’s footage sparked outrage on social media, but also skepticism — not only because Delta Airlines produced a much different version of events, but because Saleh himself has a history of staging prank videos, some involving airlines.

There are conflicting reports about what really happened before Saleh was kicked off the plane

In Saleh’s video, he protests that he is being racially discriminated against because other passengers claimed to feel “uncomfortable” after he spoke “a different language.” A member of the flight crew can be seen asking Saleh to step outside. Several other passengers can be seen waving and telling Saleh, “bye,” while other passengers look visibly upset. One asks, “Why are those white people complaining about these people speaking in a different language?”

Delta Airlines has a different story. After reportedly speaking with multiple passengers and crew members involved in the situation, the airline issued a statement on the evening of the 21st claiming that Saleh and his friends were being disruptive:

Upon landing the crew was debriefed and multiple passenger statements collected. Based on the information collected to date, it appears the customers who were removed sought to disrupt the cabin with provocative behavior, including shouting. This type of conduct is not welcome on any Delta flight.

Vox emailed a Delta representative asking for details about the provocative behavior in question, and whether Saleh allegedly began shouting before or after he was asked to leave. The representative declined to provide information beyond the airline’s original statement.

Saleh and his traveling companions were ejected from the flight and reportedly booked on a different airline, Virgin, to complete their trip to New York. While waiting for the flight, he filmed another video in which he repeated his assertion that he was asked to deplane after a group of passengers became uncomfortable with Saleh speaking in Arabic. “Delta made the decision to kick us out,” he said. In a general press statement emailed to Vox by his managers Wednesday afternoon, Saleh repeated his version of events:

I was speaking to my mom on the phone like I always do before getting on a flight. I call her before I take off and when I land so that she knows I am safe and well. I was speaking in Arabic when a female passenger began shouting that they felt uncomfortable. This encouraged almost 10 other passengers to agree and shout the same thing. We were kicked off the flight while those passengers mocked us. We are currently getting ready to get onto another flight with another Airline. I will keep everyone updated with the situation through social media! I appreciate everyone’s support and effort in raising awareness on this!

Saleh also gave an interview to CBS in which he described the situation as “20 people” being uncomfortable with him speaking Arabic, and “a lot of other people being uncomfortable with them being uncomfortable.”

Passengers who witnessed the incident before takeoff gave conflicting statements to the New York Times. One corroborated Saleh’s claim that a woman overreacted to Saleh speaking in Arabic, while another stated she thought both parties should have been removed from the plane.

Later, a man who claimed to have been seated nearby to Saleh on the plane posted an account to Reddit. His story is that Saleh and his friend had shouted Arabic words to one another and fist-pumped four times while filming passenger’s reactions, possibly as part of a YouTube video they were planning to make.

Is Saleh the boy who cried “Islamophobia?”

Although Saleh’s video instantly gained international attention, many onlookers are skeptical that the video is genuine, or that the story happened the way Saleh claims it did.

This is primarily because Saleh, who has 1.7 million followers on YouTube, has made a name for himself staging viral videos that challenge assumptions about Muslim identity and relationships between Muslims and Americans. But not all of these videos have been entirely fact-based.

Saleh previously faked an instance of racial profiling in one of his videos. In 2014, Saleh and his friend Sheikh Akbar appeared in a viral video purporting to show New York police accosting them for scuffling while dressed in ethnic clothing. After the Smoking Gun debunked the video as a hoax, the two later updated the description to admit that the video was “a dramatization,” before eventually deleting it altogether. Saleh has also staged airplane-based pranks, such as his claim earlier this month to have stowed away in luggage.

Saleh’s faked racial profiling video incurred the censure of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which warned in a statement to the Huffington Post that such pranks might make it more difficult for Muslims facing actual discrimination to have their claims believed.

Ironically, that seems to be the case for Saleh himself:

However, Saleh and his managers are adamant that this is no false claim. Saleh appeared visibly upset in his videos, and his manager told BuzzFeed that “in his previous videos [Saleh] always reveals his pranks, whereas the latest video was ‘as real as it gets.’”

While Saleh became famous for staging a prank involving his Muslim identity, he has also conducted other experiments around the same issue. Often these involve a staged scenario with a hidden camera placed in crowds. In June, he posted a video in which he and a friend staged an experiment where he pulled off her hijab in public to gauge the reactions of the people around him. In the description for the video, he explains, “In 2004, my Mom got her Hijab pulled of [sic] in public right in front of me and no one stood up for her. This inspired me to film this video and see how people would react today!”

In August 2016, he used a hidden camera to conduct a dropped wallet test in Dohar, Qatar, as well as in New York City. His intention was to show that the average Muslim was about as honest as the average US citizen.

Speaking to Al Jazeera about the video, Saleh said that he wanted to show that “[Middle Easterners] are all positive people.”

Delta doesn’t have the best track record of dealing with “disturbances” caused by racial imbalance

Delta officials said in multiple statements released in the immediate aftermath of the incident that it would be conducting an investigation on the ground in London and speaking to the crew once the plane completed its scheduled flight in New York. After it landed, Delta spoke with crew and passengers and released its verdict that Saleh had “sought to disrupt the cabin with provocative behavior.”

Delta described the incident as “a disturbance in the cabin [which] resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort.” That contradicts Saleh’s allegation that all he was doing was talking on his phone in a different language, yet it does match his description of more than 20 people getting upset with him for it.

Delta also noted its need to adhere with federal aviation laws in creating an “orderly” environment, without specifying what actions might typically create a disorderly or disruptive environment:

Maintaining a safe, comfortable and orderly onboard environment is paramount for every flight and requires the cooperation of all of our customers in conjunction with adherence to directions from our crew members. This is a Delta policy and is required by U.S. regulations as well as others governing aviation worldwide.

If Saleh’s description of the incident is accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time Delta has been accused of racial discrimination on board its flights:

  • In February 2015, a Muslim woman was harassed by another passenger for wearing a headscarf and ordered to change seats by a Delta flight attendant. Leaked video footage of the incident showed the flight attendant scolding the woman and her husband and threatening to kick them off the plane.
  • In December 2015, Sikh lawyer and MSNBC commentator Valerie Kaur was allegedly asked by a Delta gate agent to show the contents of her carry-on bag, which included displaying a breast pump, before she was allowed to board her plane. Delta reportedly apologized to her for the incident.
  • In August 2016, a Muslim couple claimed they were asked to leave a Delta flight after saying the word “Allah.” Delta promised to issue the couple a refund; the couple filed a complaint against the airline.
  • In October 2016, a black woman doctor claimed that a Delta flight attendant refused to allow her to help an ailing patient on board a flight because the flight attendant didn’t believe she was really a doctor. Delta claimed that only one doctor aboard had been able to produce documentation that he was really a medical professional, and thus was the only one who was allowed to help the passenger. The woman alleged, however, that the man produced no documentation. Delta later changed its policy to drop this requirement for doctors wanting to help other patients on board.
  • Meanwhile, Delta was recently criticized for not asking a belligerent white man to deplane — a Donald Trump supporter who in late November 2016 boarded a flight and repeatedly referred to Clinton voters as “bitches.” Delta described this incident as a “disturbance” as well.

Beyond Delta’s track record, incidents such as these reflect a larger ongoing pattern of Islamophobia aboard airlines throughout the world.

On Twitter, Saleh stated before his second flight took off from London that he and his friend would be “heading to our lawyer” once they reached New York. Once landed, he sent a note of thanks to his followers for the support, while criticizing Delta for its response, as his video continued to circulate on the internet.

The complicated nature of this incident illustrates the complicated nature of discussing modern race relations

On the surface, it’s easy to write off Saleh as another provocative YouTube prankster who staged the entire event. And it’s equally easy, barring a substantiated alternative explanation for why Saleh was kicked off the plane, to believe he was telling the truth.

But a couple of things are getting lost in the push to paint Saleh as either a prankster up to his old tricks or an innocent victim of Islamophobia.

The first is that even when Saleh has staged or manipulated his videos, he’s done so to illustrate the real experiences of bigotry and Islamophobia that his family and other Muslims have experienced. Nothing that occurred on the Delta flight served to invalidate the racism and societal anxieties that many Muslims face every day, or to negate the points Saleh’s previous videos have made.

The second is that even if we have no specific verification of Saleh’s claim that the whole thing started because a woman got upset that he spoke Arabic, we do know that similar incidents have happened to Muslims across the world. Muslims in English-speaking countries are frequently pressured to speak only in English, to remove their headwear and wear non-traditional clothing, and to prove they are not terrorists despite no evidence that suggests they are.

But in an era when the proliferation of fake news throughout social media has preoccupied and distracted many people and made many more feel especially paranoid, the packaging of Saleh’s message has become a part of the story. Does it matter if Saleh intentionally provoked the other passengers on the plane to see how they would react to his speaking in a different language? If you’re being manipulated to express a racist point of view, does that make expressing that point of view okay?

It’s possible that everything Saleh did was a hoax — that he provoked annoyance from other passengers and then interpreted their reactions as racist bigotry rather than basic annoyance at that one loud guy who won’t shut up on the plane.

It’s possible that, given past incidents and what we know about racial bias, if that one loud guy who won’t shut up is Muslim, he’s more likely to be targeted in than a one loud guy who is white — witness the aforementioned Trump voter who was allowed to remain on board a Delta flight despite verbally harassing other passengers.

It’s also possible that in Saleh’s case, his fellow passengers’ annoyance stemmed from his daring to be Arabic in public.

And that point — that individuals are all equally likely to act out of kindness or prejudice, regardless of skin color or ethnic background — is the point Saleh tends to make over and over again in his videos. Whether you see him as an obnoxious traveler or an incendiary provocateur inciting racial conflicts, Saleh’s brush with Delta makes it clear that while we may be “post-truth” in 2016, we are anything but post-racism.

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