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A Non-Islamic No to Religious Profiling

A Non-Islamic No to Religious Profiling

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Reports of religious profiling in the US have given rise to many a raging controversy before. But this one is different. The latest instance has provoked a national outrage this time in a non-Islamic country - India.

India has still not stopped talking about the reported detention and questioning of one of the shiniest of India's movie stars at the Newark Airport on August 15, coincidentally the county's Independence Day. Shah Rukh Khan attributes the detention "for two hours" and the "humiliating" interrogation by the immigration officials to his surname. Not many Indians disagree.

The report drew instant, angry responses from the whole country and almost the entire political spectrum. If sections of the far right did not share the sentiment, they had at least the sense to keep silent. Even India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni intervened, and she went to the extent of threatening similar treatment to American visitors at Indian airports. At other times, the statement would have drawn flak as an overreaction, but has now been allowed to pass as an expression of legitimate indignation, not to be taken literally. The responses should have been predictable to anyone reasonably acquainted with India.

Shah Rukh is among the most popular of actors in Hindi cinema in Hindu-majority India. He holds this place of pride in a country where movie stars and cricketers are household names. The biggest names in Bollywood - as the Hindi movie industry is called - are a trio of Khans (with Aamir Khan and Salman Khan offering the stiffest competition to Shah Rukh). The surname has not stood in the way of success of any one of the three or some other Khans in the second line in the limelight. The majority of Indians have never really accepted the far right's idea of religion-based nationalism.

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Forty-three-year-old Shah Rukh, of an Afghan-Pathan descent, has always been accepted as an Indian entertainer. His wife is a Hindu, and his two children are said to be brought up in a home that respects both religions. He describes himself as "a devout practicing Muslim," and has been quoted as saying, "Moderate Muslims are the best people on earth." His media interviews are replete with "insha'allahs," the Muslim invocations of God's help before making wishes or voicing hopes.

He has never refrained from playing a recognizably Hindu hero, with religious marks as part of his make-up, lip-syncing hymns before temple idols. He might not be every movie critic's model actor, but he certainly symbolizes and owes his success to India's composite culture. This, more than anything else, explains the enraged response to his version of the airport episode.

In a different context, his story might have only drawn cynical derision and dismissal. Idols can reveal clay feet to movie-crazy Indians, too. Shahh Rukh is known to be readying a release titled "My Name Is Khan," and it is all about the hero traveling across the US, carrying the cross of that name. The cynics might well snicker: What better promo for the blockbuster? Someone did say something like that, but the crack did not catch on.

The immigration officials, for their part, have denied that he was interrogated because his name "came up on the computer." They say that a second inspection became necessary in his case because his baggage was delayed. They do not make his experience sound any less unpleasant by claiming that he was held for only "one hour and six minutes" and not "two hours."

If such technical arguments do not take away sympathy for Shah Rukh, it is because his is only a repetition of other experiences. A Muslim name has figured in the similar encounters of India matinee idols with the security staff at American airports before.

Aamir Khan, a much-acclaimed actor associated with some meaningful cinema, was reportedly subjected to similar questioning and strip-searching in Chicago last year. Mammootty, a star from south India, had to answer questions and allay suspicions in New York, since his passport name was Muhammadkutty Ismail Paniparambil. Another south Indian star to suffer was Kamal Haasan, an upper-caste Hindu, whose second name is often confused with "Hasan." He thought he had made it worse for himself in April 2002 by sporting a beard grown for a movie!

All this, of course, amounts to no plea for any special or privileged treatment for the celebrities and the powerful. It is true that ministers and other VIPs (very important persons) in India have sought and secured exception from security checks in Indian airports and seek to evade such procedures abroad as well. The Shah Rukh affair has won no support for their cause.

It has, on the contrary, served to focus attention on the trauma of air travel for less fortunate Muslims than the star. The question is: if this could happen to Shah Rukh, what can happen to the lesser mortals of India's largest minority, which forms the world's second largest Muslim population now?

Religious profiling at the US airports and elsewhere is a legacy of George W. Bush and his lieutenants, who found in Islam the "enemy" they needed for their "endless war." It is a legacy that even non-Islamic nations like India would expect the US under Barack Hussein Obama to leave behind. This will call for more concrete and courageous steps than a "beer summit" among the president, an immigration official and Shah Rukh Khan!


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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