Speaking Arabic while flying

Will it soon be necessary to check in one’s Muslim identity before boarding a plane?

A passenger jet passes over traffic at JFK airport [Getty]
A passenger jet passes over traffic at JFK airport [Getty]

There are fewer phrases less threatening than “God willing”. The two words are uttered by presidential candidates on the campaign trail, political figures and media pundits on mainstream media networks, and are a staple part of common American colloquial communication.

The phrase is a hopeful, optimistic one, even used secularly in the United States today. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find another phrase that instils less fear, and more comfort, than God willing.

This should also be the case when God willing, or Inshallah, is uttered in Arabic. But it isn’t. Especially today, when fear of anything associated with Islam – especially the Arabic language – is deeply embedded. This irrational fear is especially pronounced on commercial aircraft, where the imaginations of captive passengers with Islamophobic proclivities rise high and roam freely.

Arab student taken off US flight for speaking Arabic

Anything associated with “Muslim terrorism”, whether it be an article of clothing or a routine conversational phrase, can trigger that irrational fear and, in turn, lead to the removal of a Muslim, Arabic-speaking, or “Muslim-resembling” passenger.

These removals are no longer isolated incidents but have become a discriminatory pattern and common practice on American commercial airliners.

A pattern of removals

In a national terrain where Islamophobia is skyrocketing, accommodating the irrational Islamophobic fears of passengers, and policing the Arabic language while on board, has become an industry custom while flying the not-so-friendly skies.

READ MORE: After Islamophobia comes the criminalisation of Arabic

On April 9, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest airline flight minutes before take-off. The University of California-Berkeley student, and Iraqi American, chose to call his uncle in Baghdad to discuss the United Nations event he had just attended in New York.

'Muslim' appearance or language gives rise to terror suspicion, while a combination of the two seems to intensify for the Islamophobic passenger.


“I just called him and told him about it … and he told me [to] call him when I get to Oakland, and I said, “Inshallah inshallah I will call you when I arrive.”  

The conversation in Arabic, and specifically the mention of “Allah” in Inshallah, caused a concerned female passenger to leave the plane. She returned two minutes later, followed by two police officers ordering Makhzoomi to leave the aircraft. 

Makhzoomi was then subjected to aggressive questioning, an examination of his luggage, and the seizure of his wallet, all preceded by the embarrassment and inconvenience associated with being forcibly removed from an aircraft.

“I felt oppressed. I was afraid,” said Makhzoomi about his emotional injury, which was capped by the insult of Southwest refusing to let him on another of its flights back to California. 

Makhzoomi’s removal from a Southwest Airlines flight for saying “Inshallah” is only the most recent in a strong of Islamophobic removals from commercial airliners.

A Muslim family was removed from a United Airlines flight leaving Chicago in March after inquiring about “securing a child booster seat“, and in December of 2015, three South Asian men and an Arab passenger were “demanded off” of an American Airlines flight leaving Toronto for New York. Three of the men forced to disembark were Muslims, while the other was a Sikh.

The inside of terminal four at JFK Airport [Getty] [
The inside of terminal four at JFK Airport [Getty] [

“Muslim” appearance or language gives rise to terror suspicions, while a combination of the two seems to intensify for the Islamophobic passenger.

Considering that these Islamophobic removals are not exclusive to one commercial airliner, having taken place on Southwest, United and American Airlines within the past four months, the risk of being forced off a plane for Arab and Muslim passengers, or others vulnerable to the Islamophobic imagination, is sky high.      

This begs the question as to whether passengers facing such Islamophobia when flying should conceal or disguise their Muslim identity.

Checking in before a flight

For Arab and Muslims prepping for a flight in America today, “checking in” has taken on a new meaning.

READ MORE: Donald Trump and electing Islamophobia

Aside from registering presence, the phrase encompasses the process of negotiating an expression of personal identity for Arabs and Muslims before boarding a plane. Namely, which identity markers to conceal or cover up, and an intentional decision to avoid speaking Arabic – or any language resembling Arabic – while on a flight.


Indeed, many Arab and Muslim airline passengers choose to “check in” their ethnic or religious identities before boarding and, subsequently, engage in a racial or religious performance that lessens the possibility of being identified as a “Muslim terrorist”, and simultaneously accommodates the irrational fears of passengers. 

Passing as a non-Muslim while on a plane, and working their identity by code-switching fully into English, is a common phenomenon for Arab and Muslim airline passengers these days.     

While “checking in” is possible for racially ambiguous Arabs and religiously inconspicuous Muslims such as myself, it is not for groups that fit neatly within the stereotypical caricature of Arabs, such as Sikhs – who are, ironically, neither Arabs nor Muslims. The same applies to Muslim women donning the headscarf, clergy, and with regard to language, airline passengers who exclusively speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Pashtun, or any tongue discursively conflated with Islam or perceived to be a “terrorist language”.

“Checking in” is one option before flying while Arab, Muslim, or Muslim-looking but it isn’t the only one. 

Arabic as activism

The ability, or inability, to “check in”, however, manifests the gravity of the problem faced by Arab and Muslim airline passengers today. On the one hand, speaking Arabic on board an airplane may incite suspicion and spur removal. But on the other, speaking Arabic is a form of activism that reveals the absurdity of these irrational fears.  

An absurdity which, one day, may push commercial airliners – such as Southwest and United Arlines – to accommodate the vast racial, religious and linguistic diversity of their customer base, instead of the Islamophobic sensibilities of a few.

Choosing to conceal Arab or Muslim identity, or biting your Arabic tongue, is capitulating to the Islamophobic trope that Arabic is associated with terrorism. While speaking it is a form of resistance that is hardly radical; it vividly illustrates the radical political and popular peaks Islamophobia finds itself soaring towards in the US today. 

I choose the latter tactic – wielding Arabic as a form of resistance – which is a more direct flight towards grounding the unchecked Islamophobia marring the airline industry today, and affecting the millions of Arab, Muslim and “Muslim-looking” passengers across and beyond America tomorrow.

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.