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The Detention of Shah Rukh Kahn

Shah Rukh Khan, the immensely popular Bollywood actor and one of the most recognizable names on earth, was subtly reminded, despite being the United States’ “very welcome guest,” that he nonetheless possesses a suspicious Muslim name which allows his detention and “routine inspection” at a New Jersey airport

After initially complaining of his “anger” and “humiliation” over the 70-minute detention, Shah Rukh Khan downplayed the incident by labeling his “routine security measure” an “unfortunate procedure.” Similarly, Timony Roemer, the U.S. ambassador to India, went into P.R. damage control by assuring Khan’s billions of fans that “Many Americans love his films.”

However, Roemer should also disclose that the United States also displays a healthy dose of racial profiling and an exaggerated security screening procedure for its darker and more “ethnic” citizens with “Muslim” last names.

U.S. officials repeatedly deny these examinations are based on race or religion despite the overwhelming statistics proving otherwise. Kevin Corsaro, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security, stated they wanted to verify Khan’s identity and purpose of travel.

Instead of ensuring safety, the heightened post 9-11 TSA measures border on inefficiency, ignorance and a violation of civil liberties. Simply using Google would have resulted in 5 million links for Khan. It would have also revealed Khan was in the U.S. to film his new movie, “My Name is Khan,” which is ironically about a Muslim man with Asperger’s falsely detained after 9-11 due to his  “suspicious behavior.”

In a federal inspection of the TSA, agents were able to slip 5 out of 7 fake bombs in luggage past security. Thankfully, TSA was able to spot and confiscate a dangerous water bottle, but not the fake bomb, which was conveniently in the same luggage. It should comfort many Americans that these heightened security measures protect us from a singing and dancing South Asian celebrity prone to melodramatic acting and plastic bottles of H20 instead of potentially fatal weapons.

Also, one can only imagine the American reaction if Brad Pitt was subjected to a “routine inspection” in India to ascertain his intentions and identity. However, the comparison is hardly apt considering Khan’s star power in India is likened to the combination of Pitt, Tom Hanks and Will Smith multiplied tenfold by ten Oprahs reading a book by Deepak Chopra. [But what about Bob Dylan being detained by a lady cop in New Jersey a few daysd ago? He apparently looked “out of place” wandering along in a Hispanic neighborhood. Dylan had ID on him  but the cop had never heard of him. Editors.]

In an era where Obama proactively covets the cooperation of the globalized world and seeks to repair the U.S. image, the detention of Khan highlights underlying frictions regarding racially motivated profiling and detentions. The tourism minister of India, Ambika Sonia, reacted harshly suggesting Khan’s treatment  “hurt every Indian” and that “there have been too many instances like these in the U.S. concerning Indians.” Most recently, former Indian president Abdul Kalam was subjected to a humiliating frisk in New Delhi by the ground staff of American airline Continental Airlines.

Thankfully for Khan he was released after placing a call to the Indian Consulate; however, most have not been that lucky.

Irtiza Hasan, a Muslim American, stated Khan’s treatment was not rare and suggested, “This is something we as American Muslims continue to deal with and work with.”

Romola Sanyal, an Indian American, criticized Khan’s elite status that affords him preferential treatment excluding him from the harsher interrogation and humiliation that is routinely meted on South Asians and Muslims. Her friend was detained for nearly 2 hours after her official visit to Pakistan, which was planned and coordinated by her employer, the World Bank.

Even internationally renowned singer and peace activist, Yusuf Islam [born Cat Stevens], had his D.C. flight diverted “on national security grounds” to Maine in 2004 after he appeared on the TSA’s “watch list.” Instead of initiating the subsequent international ruckus, perhaps TSA members should have simply watched Yusuf’s “Behind the Scenes” VH1 special instead.

Furthermore, we should not forget Atif Irfan, a Muslim American and a tax lawyer, who was removed from an Air Train flight on New Year’s Day, along with eight family members and a friend, despite being cleared by the FBI. Apparently, paranoid passengers misunderstood the family’s benign conversation regarding the safest place to sit onboard as suspicious behavior characteristic of potential terrorists. Irfan later told me his wife simply did not want to sit next to the foul smelling lavatories.

Pakistan American, Shazia Kamal, was more hopeful suggesting incidents like Khan’s detention can “serve as a mirror for the things that are happening to American Muslims in the domestic sphere.” Thankfully, excellent and skilled non-profit organizations like the Bay Area’s Muslim Advocates offer free information and video tutorials educating all Americans –regardless of faith or race – about their 4th amendment rights and the limits of TSA questioning.

In an optimistic turn towards judicial sanity, federal Judge Ann Montgomery recently ruled the infamous “flying imams” could proceed with their lawsuit against law enforcement officials who wrongly arrested the religious leaders and escorted them off their U.S. Airways flight.  In 2006, the six imams, all of Middle Eastern descent, were accused of suspicious behavior by a couple due to their Arabic and one imam’s request for a longer seatbelt on account of his obesity.

If indeed Americans love Shah Rukh Khan movies, perhaps they’ll enjoy “My Name is Khan” and learn that not every Arabic name or brown skin should raise the color-coded Terror alert.

WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/

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