National Security

Even if a prank, latest ‘Flying While Muslim’ incident raises issue of bias

YouTube star Adam Saleh
YouTube star Adam Saleh

It might’ve seemed like one of his signature pranks, if it weren’t for the quivering in his voice as he was escorted off a Delta flight after speaking Arabic to his mom.

Adam Saleh, a YouTube star with around 4 million followers across several platforms, is the latest – and the highest-profile – Muslim to be removed from a flight after other passengers voiced suspicions.

“Flying While Muslim” is the shorthand for the proliferation of cases that show it takes as little as speaking in a foreign language to get kicked off a flight.

Muslim advocacy groups have warned that such incidents are fast increasing at a time of open hostility toward Muslims, fueled in part by the rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump. The publication The Islamic Monthly compiled a list of 16 cases in the past year; some Muslims have filed discrimination suits against the airlines.

Details are still emerging in the case of Saleh, who’s won a massive fan base through pranks and funny videos, often invoking the quirks of Muslim life.

When a video of Saleh and a friend being escorted off a London-to-New-York Delta flight flew across social media Wednesday, many speculated that it was just another joke. Saleh recently claimed he’d packed himself into a suitcase and flown in the baggage hold on a domestic flight in Australia; the airline exposed the incident as a hoax. He’d been criticized previously for faking a video, which went viral, purporting to show anti-Muslim discrimination by the New York Police Department.

Older videos on Saleh’s YouTube channel show that he has previously filmed himself speaking in Arabic on planes as if to see what kind of reaction he’d get – a history that has undermined his latest claims among skeptics. However, he also has defenders who say that even if the new incident is a prank, it couldn’t have succeeded without real-life discrimination playing a role.

Delta issued a statement confirming the removals after “a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort.” And the London police issued a statement acknowledging that officers had responded to Heathrow Airport, where two passengers who’d been removed from a flight “were assisted in making alternative travel arrangements.”

In the video, shared hundreds of thousands of times within hours, Saleh, 23, and his friend, Slim Albaher, 22, both New Yorkers, looked distraught as they are being escorted off the plane by a woman in a red Delta uniform. Saleh narrates the scene into his cellphone camera, speaking loudly enough for other passengers to hear.

The version Saleh gives in the video and in subsequent social media posts is this: He was on the phone with his mother, who speaks only Arabic, when a woman sitting near him asked him to speak English because he was making her feel “uncomfortable.” Words were exchanged, other passengers took the woman’s side and they allegedly complained to the flight attendant.

In the video, a few passengers can be seen jeering – “Bye!” – as Saleh and Albaher are led down the aisle toward the exit.

“Six white people against us bearded men!” Saleh said in the video, asking why the complaining passengers hadn’t been removed, too.

Others on the flight look shocked; one man loudly objects to the removal, saying, “Is there freedom of speech? They can speak in whatever language they want to on the plane!”

The hashtag #BoycottDelta was trending worldwide hours after the news broke.

Saleh wrote on Twitter that he’d gotten a seat on a New York flight with a different airline and thanked his fans for their support.

Saleh’s management team said he was unavailable for comment because he was en route to New York but released a statement that repeated the scenario he described in the video.

“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,” Saleh said in the statement.

Perhaps because of the skepticism swirling around Saleh’s case, major Muslim advocacy groups were slow to issue statements in support of him. The Council on American-Islamic Relations noted in a statement Wednesday afternoon that “racial and religious profiling of Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim, is a real and continuing problem. We don’t yet know whether this case fits that troubling pattern.”

The group has issued statements on several so-called “flying while Muslim cases” in recent years.

In 2011, Atlantic Southeast Airlines was assessed a $25,000 civil penalty in a case brought by two imams who had been removed from a Delta Connection flight while heading to North Carolina for a conference on anti-Muslim prejudice.

In more recent cases, a Muslim couple on an anniversary trip to Europe was removed from a Delta flight in July, reportedly after a member of the flight crew complained that she was “uncomfortable” because the husband and wife were sweating and had said “Allah,” the Arabic word for God.

Last December, a Muslim businessman in Charlotte, North Carolina, was removed from an American Airlines plane after he complained about a flight attendant who had called out his name and seat assignment and reportedly told him, “I’ll be watching you.” A month before that incident, four people were removed from a Spirit Airlines flight out of Baltimore after another passenger saw them looking at news on a cellphone and reported them for “suspicious activity.”

The most headline-grabbing case before Saleh’s involved Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, an Iraqi college student in California who’d excitedly called his uncle from a Southwest flight in April to tell him about participating in an event with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Makhzoomi said he was escorted off the plane, searched and questioned by the FBI after his phone conversation in Arabic made others uneasy.

“During this past year, there have been many examples of innocent, law-abiding Muslims removed from planes and unfairly targeted for additional screening as a result of nothing more than paranoia and ignorance,” Ryan Houldin, a civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Philadelphia office, wrote in October.   

Delta has pledged to examine Saleh’s version of what happened on the plane.

“We’re conducting a full review to understand what transpired,” the airline said in the statement. “We are taking allegations of discrimination very seriously; our culture requires treating others with respect.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam