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My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist” . This is the leitmotif of the new film from acclaimed Bollywood director, Karan Johar, and it is one that bears repeating, especially in the United States. The main character, a Muslim Indian with a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome (played by Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who is also Muslim), first utters these words at the very beginning of the film, as he is being roughly searched at the San Francisco Airport. This sets up the primary theme of the film (which Khan’s grandmother whispers to him before he sets out for America), that “there are two kinds of people in the world, good and bad”. What she doesn’t explain to him, however, is that most people tend to extend this judgement over entire groups and have difficulty making exceptions to their deeply-ingrained prejudices. Such is the painful truth that Khan is forced to learn in post-9/11 America, as a series of anti-Muslim attacks unfold, including one that results in the death of his wife’s son, who isn’t even Muslim. Khan sets out on a Gump-esque mission to tell as many people as he can that he is “not a terrorist”, including President Bush, to whom he shouts those very words at a rally and is promptly tackled by Secret Service and sent to an FBI detention center for interrogation. Khan is eventually released when 2 young Indian journalists come across video footage of the rally to corroborate Khan’s story but the point has been made: In the US, if you’re name is Khan, you will be treated like a terrorist.

And, in the great tradition of art imitating life, this point proved true last summer when Shah Rukh Khan, the actor who plays Khan in the film, was detained at Newark Airport for over an hour of “secondary questioning”. Khan, one of the biggest film stars in India and the developing world, was on his way to New York to promote “My Name is Khan” when this tragically ironic twist of fate occurred. Below is a news report from CNN-IBN.

By the end of the 2.5hr film, Khan has also journeyed to a poor village in the deep South and helped save a Black church after a Katrina-esque hurricane, establishing an interesting link between Muslims and African-Americans and setting up the requisite happy ending (a natural law in Bollywood) in which the newly-elected President Obama awards Khan for his heroism and says to him, “Your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist!”. Then everyone in the crowd joins hands to sing “We Shall Overcome”  and we all live tolerantly ever after.

But only in the movies. In the real world, President Obama has fallen well short of the promise he made last April, in Cairo , “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Doha last month, at the US-Islamic World Forum , conceding that the Obama administration had not yet fulfilled many of the policy changes it had promised and pleading for patience. The Secretary spoke of “shared responsibility” but the general consensus across the Arab World is that the US commitment has been “insufficient and insincere”. One need only look at the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and ongoing occupation of Gaza, the still-open detention center at Guantanamo, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, diplomatic deadlock with Iran, and a lack of cultural engagement to see why Muslims the world over are feeling disappointed and deceived.

Meanwhile, the White House recently announced the appointment of a new “special envoy” to the Organization of the Islamic Conference , a group of 57 states that considers itself the collective voice of Muslims around the world. And, guess what… the special envoy is a Muslim! But, luckily for him, perhaps, his name is not Khan. It’s Rashad Hussain, a deputy White House counsel who helped prepare the Cairo speech last year. The White House touted this appointment (which comes less than 1 year after the State Dept.’s appointment of a ‘special representative’ to the Muslim world, Farah Pandith ) as “an important part of the president’s commitment to engaging Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and mutual interest”.

In honor of all the Khans in the US and abroad who are not terrorists, I will withhold my applause until Mr. Obama and his special representatives actually get on the stage and start singing the song they promised us all we would hear. They may not know the exact words yet, but it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from one very hopeful Hindi film and just start humming “We Shall Overcome”.

Here’s a teaser from the official website with a familiar melody…

And here’s the full trailer with English subtitles

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