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Paris terror fuels fear of American Muslims

Almost three weeks after he and his cousin were temporarily barred from boarding a plane for speaking Arabic, Maher Khalil, 28, still is traumatized.

Maher Khalil, owner of a pizzeria in Northeast Philly, was briefly barred from a flight.
Maher Khalil, owner of a pizzeria in Northeast Philly, was briefly barred from a flight.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Almost three weeks after he and his cousin were temporarily barred from boarding a plane for speaking Arabic, Maher Khalil, 28, still is traumatized.

"It's like a nightmare," said Khalil, of Northeast Philadelphia. "I feel I'm not free to speak my language."

The men's ordeal not only made headlines, it rang true for other Arab Americans and Muslims. In the weeks since the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, U.S. Islamic organizations and news reports tell of increased episodes of bias, with local police seeing a rise in tips implicating men of Middle Eastern appearance.

Khalil, 28, who owns Pizza Point in the Feltonville section, and his cousin Anas Ayyad, 29, who runs Premium Pizza II in Harrowgate, were about to board a flight home from Chicago Nov. 18 after visiting family when Southwest Airlines personnel stopped them.

The airline employees told them that another passenger felt unsafe flying with the two men, both U.S. citizens - after hearing them chat in Arabic.

Khalil, who emigrated here 15 years ago from the West Bank, was stunned. "I asked him if it was a prank," he said.

It was not. After a brief conversation he called 911, hoping police could help. He said some passengers, too, objected to the airline employees' actions.

Fifteen minutes later, according to Khalil, he and his cousin were allowed to board. Other passengers eyed them.

"They gave us that look - like we were terrorists," Khalil said.

Passengers demanded that Khalil reveal what he was carrying in a small white box. He obliged, revealing a helping of baklava - even offering a bite to doubtful passengers.

Southwest said the flight was delayed just two minutes and employees at the scene offered apologies. Khalil remembers the entire ordeal lasting about half an hour - with no apologies. "They acted like nothing happened," he said.

After the incident became news, Khalil said he and his cousin received countless letters and calls from lawyers hoping to represent them.

They hired Abed Ayoub, a Washington-based lawyer who often works pro bono for Muslims or Arab Americans with bias claims. He hasn't ruled out suing, but has contacted Southwest and says his main purpose is to have the airline take steps to prevent such incidents. Ayoub said a secondary goal is to get results for the two men he believes were profiled.

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said airline employees have their hands full: They have a duty to protect passengers, and "if a customer raises a concern of any kind, we are responsible for investigating the report while continuing to perform essential job functions both at the gate and onboard."

But one group says the episode fits a pattern. After the Paris attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported an "unprecedented backlash" against Muslims to an extent not seen since the days after Sept. 11, 2001. Between Nov. 13 and 25, the organization documented 25 cases of alleged discrimination against U.S. Muslims.

That was before the shooters in last week's San Bernardino killings were identified in news reports as Muslims.

The "backlash" often occurs at airports. A day before Khalil and Ayyad's incident, four people of Middle Eastern appearance were removed from a flight in Baltimore after a fellow passenger saw one of them watch a news report on his phone.

Also at Chicago's Midway Airport, on the same day Khalil and Ayyad were stopped, six men appearing to be Arabs were removed from a Southwest flight before takeoff after reportedly trying to switch seats with other passengers in order to sit near each other. The airline said in a statement that the men were removed for not following crew instructions.

Ayoub, who as legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is seeking to represent Arabs in such incidents, said he has also heard reports of threats against Muslims, Arab American children being bullied at school, and people forcibly removing hijabs from the heads of Muslim women.

"This is an issue Arabs have had to deal with since 9/11," Ayoub said.

ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi agrees. Even before Paris, "hate crimes and threats against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans were at the highest they had been since 9/11," said Shamsi, who directs the group's National Security Project. "Now, we are seeing an even more significant rise in reports of discrimination and violence against American Muslims or those who appear to be Muslim."

Jacob Bender, head of CAIR's Philadelphia branch, said there is also "a marked increase in the Muslim community's fear."

Bender, who in 2013 became the first Jewish person to lead a CAIR chapter, called recent comments by some presidential candidates and other politicians an "open attack on a group of Americans," the likes of which "we have never seen in our lifetimes."

The Philadelphia Police Department's chief inspector for homeland security, Joseph Sullivan, said more people are reporting suspicious activity since the Paris attacks, and when they do, "It's common for them to describe individuals as Middle Eastern or Arabic men."

Sullivan said each tip has been investigated; all have turned out to be unfounded.

He said homeland security personnel are trained to look exclusively at behavior, not demographic descriptions. Photos of terror suspects he and his team receive in memos from the FBI tell the tale: Terrorists, he said, are represented in "every racial and ethnic group in America."

SEPTA, too, has "definitely" seen an increase in tips, Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel said. The "See Something, Say Something" campaign urges riders to report suspicious activity. But he said most who call SEPTA report unattended bags, not suspicious persons. The difference, after Paris: "People are calling in much faster than before," Nestel said.

Ryan Houldin, CAIR Philadelphia's attorney, said the group has received no discrimination complaints here since the events in France, adding that there seems to be "quite a bit of tolerance" in Philadelphia.

Even so, the episode in Chicago has rocked Khalil, Ayyad, and their loved ones.

"They felt really sad," Khalil said. "They're like, 'Now we can't speak Arabic in public?' "