No-Fly Zone: Muslim Kicked Off Flight For Speaking Arabic Is Another Example Of Real Religious Persecution

One of the far right’s favorite personalities, Glenn Beck, recently had a discussion on his show about the future of Christian “persecution” in the United States. His guest for that segment, an evangelical leader named Samuel Rodriguez, said he thinks Christians will soon be sent off to jail just for practicing their faith.

“There’s a great probability that in our lifetime, that we may have to be imprisoned and suffer great persecution, prosecution, as a result of our commitment to biblical truth, to Jesus, to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” the Rev. Rodriguez told Beck. “We are there, my friend. That’s not hyperbole.”

While those comments are most certainly hyperbole for members of America’s overwhelming Christian majority, persecution is all too real for some Muslims living in the United States. In fact, the very day of that conversation a Muslim college student was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight simply because he had a phone conversation in Arabic.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old senior at the University of California-Berkeley, had settled into his seat for an April 6 journey from Los Angeles to Oakland when he decided to call his uncle in Baghdad to share some excitement: Makhzoomi had just attended an event at which United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke. He even got to ask Ki-moon a question.

Apparently a nearby passenger was disturbed by Makhzoomi, who was speaking in Arabic. When he hung up the phone, he realized a woman seated in front of him had turned around and was staring him in the face, according to a report in The New York Times.

Even though there is no evidence that Makhzoomi did anything wrong, that passenger told a flight attendant that the college student made “potentially threatening comments,” according to a statement from Southwest.  

After that happened, an Arabic-speaking Southwest employee of either Middle Eastern or Asian background escorted Makhzoomi off the plan and, after introducing himself in Arabic, reportedly asked in English: “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?”

Makhzoomi, who still had done nothing wrong, told The Times that he was spoken to “like I was an animal.”   

In response, Makhzoomi reportedly accused the airline of Islamophobia, which ticked off the employee, who refused to allow Makhzoomi to return to the flight.

After that, Makhzoomi was subjected to an interrogation, searched “in front of a crowd of onlookers,” according to The Times, and even questioned by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). After the FBI realized Makhzoomi was not a threat to anyone, they released him. Southwest promptly refunded his ticket.

Sadly, this sort of scenario is becoming all-too common. Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Times that Makhzoomi is at least the sixth Muslim to be kicked off a U.S. flight this year.

There was also a December 2015 incident in which four Muslim and Sikh U.S. residents were booted off a flight from Toronto to New York purely because of their appearance.

And yet, other religious groups that cause actual disturbances on planes are frequently granted accommodations for their beliefs – even when doing so delays the flight. As The Times reported in April 2015, “A growing number of airline passengers, particularly on trips between the United States and Israel, are now sharing stories of conflicts between ultra-Orthodox Jewish men trying to follow their faith and women just hoping to sit down.”

The Times said that several flights from New York to Israel have been delayed or disrupted because Hasidic men would not take their seats if they had been assigned next to a woman. Sometimes, these men caused a raucous until someone moved seats voluntarily – or at the request of the airline’s employees.

Would Makhzoomi have been “threatening” had he spoken any other language besides Arabic? What if he had asked to move seats? Some of the four men kicked off that Toronto flight raised “suspicion” when they asked politely to switch seats after boarding the plane.

That Muslims are being singled out for despicable treatment on airplanes is proof that religious persecution in the United States is real. But contrary to what Beck and his allies believe, Christians are in no danger.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Muslims in some instances. The U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom, which is often interpreted as the right to believe or not believe whatever you want. But real religious liberty cannot exist if some people do not have the right to live their daily lives without being harassed because of their appearance, language or belief system.