Three weeks ago, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year old student at UC Berkeley, was coming back from a dinner in which he had just met Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon. Glowing from the experience, Makhzoomi was sitting in a plane at Los Angeles International Airport about to take off, bound for Oakland, California. While waiting, Makhzoomi was on the phone with his uncle who lives in Baghdad, describing the amazing dinner he had just attended. He eventually bid his uncle farewell by saying “insha’Allah, insha’Allah,” a common Arabic phrase that goes along with saying goodbye, the literal translation meaning “God willing” or “if God wills.”
Still waiting on the tarmac, a woman sitting one seat in front of Makhzoomi overheard the conversation and alerted a flight attendant. The flight attendant called airport security, and an LAX security officer boarded the plane. Makhzoomi was ordered to get off, and to talk with security. Once off of the plane, he began to protest with the airport staff, claiming that there was no wrongdoing on his behalf and that this was a clear case of discrimination. This prompted the staff to call the FBI, who interviewed Makhzoomi for the next three hours. Soon enough, Makhzoomi’s story would be picked up by news outlets around the world, including NPR, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera.
One week after the incident, I was about to start my third Model United Nations conference in Los Angeles, representing the University of San Francisco. It was the first day and the head chair of the committee was doing roll call. “Togo… here!” “Tunisia… here!” “Turkey… Turkey… Is Turkey here?”
The head chair kept going, and the mystery of Turkey’s whereabouts was quickly forgotten. The delegate missing was, in fact, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, and he would not show up to committee until the second day. When I first met him, I was attempting to recruit his very eloquent debating skills for the bloc that my country (Mauritania) had formed. He came into the room at the start of the second day with somewhat of a boisterous yet extremely persuasive and convincing presence. Makhzoomi knew his stuff, and I was determined to utilize these skills in our formed bloc.
It was that afternoon where I learned of his heart wrenching and frustrating story. Outside the conference room where the committee was taking place, I started to talk to Makhzoomi about his life, the connection with his home in Iraq, and his fascinating political articles published for the Huffington Post months prior. The conversation eventually led to his experience at LAX airport. For me, it was islamophobia and ignorance and bigotry wrapped into one and a seemingly dramatic failure on all levels of American law enforcement. This time, it was personal. Knowing that a fellow Model United Nations member had experienced such blatant discrimination angered me.
It seems that a new wave of Islamophobia has reverberated through the United States in the last year. Between the Paris attacks in November, and the San Bernardino shootings a month after, the United States has all but reverted back to early post-9/11 sentiments. Perhaps the most shocking example of law enforcement engaging in discrimination against Muslims are the actions taken by the New York City Police Department after 9/11. Lawrence Sanchez, a former CIA employee who later worked for the NYPD, formed a group within the police department called the “Demographics Unit.” Created in 2003, its goal was to track, identify, and conduct surveillance on the Muslim communities of New York City. In some cases, this meant planting undercover agents in schools, shops, and mosques to gauge whether there was a chance for a person to become radicalized. The program was uncovered by the Associated Press in 2011, then shut down in 2014. In its eleven years, not a single lead was ever generated.
The actions taken by the NYPD, and in Makhzoomi’s case, the LAX airport security staff and FBI, expose a much larger problem. These repeated hasty suspicions by American law enforcement create a cyclically toxic relationship with Muslim communities. The NYPD, LAX airport security, and FBI all assumed extremism with little to no evidence. The Demographics Unit were basing their program off of a simple conclusion: do not investigate crime-ridden areas, do not even investigate areas that are known to harbor extremism, but investigate on the fact that the communities are simply Muslim. With Makhzoomi, airport security and the FBI based their suspicions off a similarly broad conjecture, Arabic spoken on a plane somehow equates to a security threat. It is clear that when boiled down to their purest form, the actions taken by law enforcement have repeatedly been haphazardly based on false conclusions, and have contributed significantly to the ongoing alienation of Muslim-American communities in the United States.
When I heard Makhzoomi had experienced such blatant Islamophobia, it deeply affected not only my own views on discrimination but revealed that it could happen to the very best of us. It seems that for many Americans, Islamophobia is treated as an afterthought, an ugly strain of racism that does not receive nearly enough attention as it should. If American law enforcement really wants to prevent the radicalization of certain populations, they most certainly are not on the right path. A strategic push to build a positive and productive relationship with Muslim-American communities is the only way for a broader bond with the rest of the country to form.