The Slatest

Southwest Says Passenger Who Complained About Arabic-Speaking Student Also Speaks Arabic

Chicago’s Midway Airport.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Well, this is interesting. Controversy has been brewing for several days in regard to the story of Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a UC–Berkeley student who was removed from an April 6 Los Angeles-to-Oakland Southwest Airlines flight when another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic and told airline employees Makhzoomi might present a security threat. Makhzoomi is an native of Iraq who says the eavesdropping passenger heard him speaking to his uncle about having been at an event involving U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; law enforcement agents determined that Makhzoomi did not pose any security risk. Seems like a classic case of ignorant overreaction in the era of Donald Trump, yeah? Well, the full story might be more complicated than that: Southwest now says the passenger who reported Makhzoomi also speaks Arabic and was specifically concerned about something he said. From the company’s statement:

A Southwest passenger onboard flight 4620 heard another passenger make comments perceived to be threatening and notified our Crew. Both passengers involved in the situation spoke a shared language, Arabic. Our Crew responded by following protocol, as required by federal law, to investigate and report to law enforcement agencies any potential threat to civil aviation. It was the content of the passenger’s conversation, not the language used, that prompted the report leading to our investigation.

In light of this assertion, a detail from the New York Times story on the incident sticks out:

“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” [Makhzoomi] said.

He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said.

Makhzoomi also told the Times that he heard from the FBI that the passenger who turned him in “reported hearing him talk about martyrdom in Arabic, using a phrase often associated with jihadists.” Given that by his own acknowledgment his conversation with his uncle involved a reference to ISIS, could we be dealing with a case of reasonable misunderstanding rather than outright bigotry? It’s hard to say either way—you can speak Arabic and still overreact to an innocent conversation, of course—without hearing more from the other passenger, who has not yet been identified in the press. And Southwest’s apparent decision not to let Makhzoomi take a different flight even after he was cleared still seems unreasonable. But it does look like this could be another case of a viral story spreading faster than the facts of the matter might justify.