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The Wrath of Khan
A Bollywood icon’s detention at Newark wasn’t a cultural misunderstanding.
20 August 2009

The worst psychological state, economist Jagdish Bhagwati has remarked, is a superiority complex coupled with an inferior status. For Indians, few things induce this state more than their own passports. The front part of the booklet shows an ancient regal statue of four lions, but the pages inside must be filled with costly foreign visas before Indians may travel—an inconvenience that Americans, Britons, and Frenchmen seldom have to put up with.

This troublesome dynamic exploded again into the Indian consciousness when Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood superstar, was held for a two-hour detention and interrogation session at Newark’s Liberty International Airport. That he was held on the 63rd anniversary of India’s independence didn’t help matters. Even better, the actor, who is Muslim, had just signed a deal to publicize his latest film, My Name Is Khan, which is billed as “a story of a Muslim man mistaken for a terrorist in post-9/11 America.” No doubt the airport incident will be milked for marketing purposes.

Khan says he feels “angry and humiliated” and finds the incident “absolutely uncalled for,” given his previous visits to the U.S. He has even leveled the more serious charge of racial profiling. Authorities both Indian and American are anxious to tamp such accusations down. The new U.S. ambassador to India has said that Khan is always welcome in America. And in response to Khan’s statement that he “was really being hassled, perhaps because of my name being Khan,” Ambika Soni, the Indian information minister, has said that any such hassling was likely not conducted with a “religious bias in mind.”

But Khan’s suspicions are closer to the truth than Soni’s assurances. The Department of Homeland Security, despite substantial criticism, maintains a program that profiles foreign travelers by their religion and nationality, and has done so since 9/11 in an open, institutionalized manner. It’s not an aberration when someone named Khan gets stopped by airport security. Under the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), men aged 16–45 from two dozen countries—all majority-Muslim, from Morocco to Indonesia—face heightened scrutiny and have their information entered into a database. The program also often extends to Muslim men from non-majority-Muslim countries, like India. So far, the NSEERS database includes men from about 140 nations, many Indian Muslims among them. Khan says that this wasn’t his first time being detained and questioned at U.S. immigration, which means that he was likely registered in the NSEERS database during a previous visit.

What does NSEERS entail, beyond the initial registration? Certainly a “secondary inspection,” one beyond the usual immigration checkpoint. This would involve detention and possibly questioning in a separate room—what Khan faced—upon entering the U.S. People in the database must also “check out” when they leave the United States, unlike other visitors. And NSEERS further requires registrants to keep authorities abreast of their whereabouts. Address changes or, for foreign students, changes in enrollment status must be sent to DHS within ten days. If a registrant violates any notification rules, the government puts his photographs and biometric data into a national crime database, which local police routinely check when they stop people for traffic offenses, for example.

Putting aside questions of the system’s merit, one can at least say that Khan’s experience was utterly predictable. Americans have decided that they want to keep a tight watch on potential terrorists and are doing so partly by monitoring Muslim travelers. Muslims, for their part, find this humiliating, because it suggests that they are a heightened security risk (which is certainly true statistically). Neither reaction should come as a surprise. The Khan affair is not an unfortunate cultural misunderstanding, but rather a case of cultures understanding one another perfectly—and not liking what they see.

Sahil Mahtani is a writer living in Mumbai.

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