If you were anywhere near what’s affectionately known as the “Bollyverse” within the last few days you’ve no doubt heard that last weekend Shah Rukh Khan, a star who needs no introduction to anyone on this website, was held for over an hour of secondary questioning at the Newark NJ airport on the way to a series of personal appearances in the US. Planet Bollywood writer Irene Nexica offers a viewpoint from the United States…
There are different reports about why he was stopped – some say the Muslim name Khan alone is a red flag, some say he didn’t have the proper paperwork and the problem was exacerbated because the airline lost his luggage, since traveling baggage free is treated with suspicion.
Khan said he felt hassled, humiliated and embarrassed by the incident. Only after an hour of questioning was an “exception” made and Khan was allowed to use his phone, after which Indian embassy officials secured his release.
People all over the world have been critical of US security policies after this event – effigies of Barack Obama were burned in Allahabad, UP.
This kind of publicity is a diplomatic nightmare. In 2004, Brazil began to fingerprint and photograph visiting Americans after the USA adopted a similar policy for foreigners entering on a visa. The US State Department protested, saying that Americans were subject to delays that appeared “discriminatory.” Tourism from the US to Brazil dropped.
Khan said in the past few days that “This has happened with me before and that’s why it concerns me all the more. As it is I shy away from coming to the US because I don’t want to participate in their paranoia about religion. … We can only avoid this by not coming to the US.” Tit-for-tat is a vicious cycle.
Procedures that appear discriminatory hurt more than the tourism industry or the willingness of Indian filmmakers to shoot here in the future (this past year has seen several major Indian films on the floors in the US). Publicity like this lessens goodwill towards the USA all over the world, and the costs of the bad image are too big to measure. Kabir Khan, whose New York (2009) addressed the role of the US government in persecuting Muslims post 9/11 said “Shah Rukh just happens to be a superstar so we took notice of it. It is happening everyday.”
All this happens on a bigger spectrum of regrettable incidents that have hurt the US’ reputation, like the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was held in four countries by the US government for nearly seven years before the charges against him were dropped. He’s now filed a lawsuit alleging torture and there’s evidence that while captive he was offered freedom if he’d admit he was a terrorist and agree not to file a lawsuit or talk publicly about his jailing. He chose not to give up his right to speak out.
Similar searches and visa issues have happened to other Indian actors including Irfan Khan and Aamir Bashir, who was due to shoot My Name is Khan in the US with Shah Rukh. He didn’t receive an entry visa from the US and was replaced in the film.
So Khan’s but one among the overseas (and domestic) celebrity elite who’ve been stopped and searched at airport security. And he’s not alone among people with Islamic names who are often selected for screening at the US border – it happens to people with green cards, naturalized citizens, and people like me who were born and raised here. Flying while brown is a big umbrella and people with and without Muslim names get stopped in what appears to me a disproportionately dark sample of the passengers in line. I believe that in the big picture screenings that seem the result of profiling make more enemies than friends around the world AND don’t make the US or the world significantly safer.
While investigating the event, US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer said Khan is “a very welcome guest.” On Tuesday August 18, PJ Crowley, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs said he “wouldn’t read anything into” the incident, and asserted that “Obviously, we want to have a close relationship with Muslims around the world.” He went on to clarify that “I think there is an ongoing effort to obviously have policies that reflect that outreach, but at the same time, meet our security concerns here in the United States.”
I don’t think the choice has to be between security and being welcoming to visitors. Both can happen. Do I think Khan was treated poorly? From what he’s said, and empathizing from my own experiences, yes. In general there’s little information in airports or planes about the rights you do and don’t have when stopped. There’s a term called “setting the expectation,” which means in general people are much more happy when they get an accurate picture of what to expect in situations ahead of time. It feels respectful. The TSA and Customs and Border Patrol agents often appear more like bullies than public servants and could give a thought to improving communication about policies and their attitude toward travelers. Using the philosophy of innocent until proven guilty to guide passenger treatment would go a long way.
Ending profiling and intrusive questioning would help too. The Travelers Privacy Protection and End Racial Profiling Acts currently proposed in the US Congress are a step in the right direction. Treating people fairly would help stem the overriding feeling that how we look and talk plays a huge role in deciding if we’re terrorists.
I care that Khan got stopped, asked intrusive questions, and had problems verifying his situation. And I’m not in favor of giving celebrities more privileges when it comes to searches than anyone else. I think that sends the message that it’s ok to treat certain groups of people better than others – isn’t that the issue that started this row? Khan’s humiliation is the humiliation we all feel when agents don’t believe what we say about our trip or who we are. His megaphone is a little louder than many of ours, and maybe the publicity around his situation will shine a light into a situation many endure.
Some people have opined that the reports are a publicity stunt for Khan’s upcoming release, My Name is Khan, which is about the effects of anti-Muslim profiling in the US. I’m not convinced. For one, this film was a big deal already, coming from one of India’s biggest production houses and recently inking a deal to distribute the film with the same American distribution house that promoted Slumdog Millionaire. It doesn’t make sense that Khan is in cahoots with the Customs police or courted his questioning. The logic behind the publicity accusations seems to be that he shouldn’t acknowledge that this happened (he’s said in the past that it’s happened – why not now?). If Khan wasn’t a celebrity it looks odd to ask him to stay quiet about his experience.
As the aam junta, we can also speak out, especially now that the issue is on the US government’s mind. With the internet we get our news almost instantly, and anyone around the world can send a message to US officials urging actions to will make it less likely that Khan or any of us will be late to an appearance because of unfair treatment. Standing up for him is standing up for us.
It’s an irony that this happened during Indian Independence celebrations, as the country emerged 62 years ago as a democracy after British colonialism. I am an American and I love my country for the richness of the people and cultures that I give and take part in all the time. When I travel around the world most people welcome me and understand that I don’t support all of my government’s actions. As a citizen, I believe I have the duty to speak up when I see something is not consistent with my country’s ideals. As a world citizen, no matter what your nationality, I encourage you to do the same, peacefully and with respect.
–This piece originally appeared at the Planet Bollywood site, <http://planetbollywood.com/displayArticle.php?id=s082009113752>, on 21 August 2009.