The detention of actor Shah Rukh Khan for about two hours by immigration officials at a United States airport has resulted in considerable public outrage in India. It is important to separate the emotional chaff from the dispassionate grain when dealing with this issue. Inflamed hyper-nationalistic reaction — reflected in retributory calls for similar treatment meted out to visiting U.S. celebrities – has no place in any level-headed discussion. At the same time, Washington's attempt to clear the air by issuing a qualified apology falls far short of addressing why such “travel-related issues” keep cropping up intermittently. This is the second time that Mr. Khan has been detained at an American airport because of his name. And an expression of regret if any “inconvenience” was caused is a hopelessly inadequate way of dealing with the mortification of being held up and questioned if the reason for doing so is based on a suspicion that someone is a terrorist or on some watch list. New Delhi's strong message, that the “mechanical” routine of detention and apology is no longer acceptable, is most apposite.
The U.S. Embassy has pointed out that tens and thousands of Muslims travel to and from the United States every day without being delayed or detained — a fact it has employed to deny that there is racial profiling. But the germane point is: how many of them are? In the wake of the Shah Rukh Khan incident, other Bollywood figures who share his surname have complained of being detained. Director Kabir Khan has said he has been detained three times; actor Irfan Khan has revealed he has been held up at least four times for two to three hours. This issue is not about celebrities alone and it would seem reasonable to assume a fair number of ordinary Muslim men and women have undergone similar or worse experiences with U.S. immigration authorities since 9/11. Rather than draw attention to the existence of a mechanism by which Indian travellers, who ostensibly risk being questioned because of their names, can alert the U.S. Embassy about their status, surely the solution to the problem — which on occasion has assumed diplomatic dimensions — is to introduce a smarter system that does not red flag people simply because of their names. The fact that the late Senator Edward Kennedy was questioned five times in one month at American airports some years ago because his name showed up on the government's secret “no fly list” should have convinced Washington how flawed the existing procedures are.
A correction was made to this Editorial.