The immensely popular Bollywood actor (read: superstar) and global icon, Shahrukh Khan/King Khan/SRK, recently told the press that he felt angry and humiliated after he was detained and “questioned” at a US airport for over two hours. In a text message to reporters in India, Khan said, “I was really hassled perhaps because of my name being Khan. These guys just wouldn’t let me through.” Khan, who is a Muslim, also called the incident “absolutely uncalled for” and pointed out that he was only released after he contacted the Indian Consulate.
Much is being said about the SRK’s encounter with Islamophobia, especially since he is promoting his upcoming film, “My Name is Khan,” which, ironically, is about the racial profiling of Muslims. Much is also being said about fans being outraged and how fellow Bollywood superstars are expressing their disapproval. However, very little to nothing is being said about how many Muslim-Americans have been experiencing discrimination, hate crimes, racial profiling, vandalism, and negative stigma ever since 9/11.
There’s no doubt that SRK’s experience at least puts racial profiling of Muslims in the spotlight, but what if he wasn’t a Bollywood star? What if, in the eyes of society, he was just an “ordinary” Indian Muslim man visiting the United States? How long would he have been detained and questioned for? His story would be left untold and unheard, just like the countless stories of many Muslims, as well as non-Muslim South Asians and Middle-Easterners (since they “look Muslim” according to Orientalist stereotypes), who have experienced similar, if not worse, encounters with Islamophobia and discrimination.
The reality is that Islamophobia is hardly even recognized as a real social problem within the United States. The term “Islamophobia” is scarcely used by the mainstream media, let alone by most American politicians, despite all of the shameless anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred we saw during the presidential campaigns (and still see from racist right-wing extremists). There are many who argue that Islamophobia “does not really exist,” and while most of this is heard from the likes of Michael Savage, Daniel Pipes, and Salman Rushdie, there are many others, including social justice academics, who have not implemented the subject of Islamophobia in their universities. To put it simply, the failure to recognize Islamophobia as a real social problem diminishes how serious and prevalent it truly is.
In light of Shahrukh Khan’s experience with racial profiling in the US, let’s take a moment to reflect on the stories that we have not heard before — stories from Muslim-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and Middle-Eastern-Americans (and others as well), who are not movie stars or celebrities, and do not have the “starpower” to capture media and public attention.
Along with the Human Rights Watch, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) observed that prior to 9/11, forty-eight hate crimes against Muslim-Americas were reported in the United States, but in the days following the attacks, that figure skyrocketed to 481. Reported incidents of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims amounted to 602 in 2002, 1,019 in 2004, 1,522 in 2004, 1,972 in 2005, and 2,467 in 2006. The context of these hate crimes and incidents consist of murders, physical and verbal assaults, and numerous cases of vandalism directed towards Mosques, convenience stores owned by Muslims, and homes. Many reports included these same hate crimes and discriminatory acts towards non-Muslim South Asians and Middle-Easterners as well.
Four days after 9/11, Mark Stroman entered a grocery store in Dallas, Texas, and shot and killed Waquar Hassan, a forty-six-year-old Pakistani father of four. Unfounded by the police, Stroman entered a convenience store in Mesquite, Texas less than a month later, and murdered Vasudev Patel, a non-Muslim Indian father of two. Stroman was finally arrested, and before being convicted and sentenced to death, he stated in an interview: “We’re at war. I did what I had to do. I did it to retaliate against those who retaliated against us.”
Also, a man named Frank Roque boasted at a local bar that he was going to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11th.” A few days later he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodi, a forty-nine-year old father of three. When arrested for murder, Roque declared: “I stand for America all the way! I’m an American. Go ahead. Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.” Little did Roque know that the turbaned man he killed was not an Arab or a Muslim, but an Indian Sikh.
Other incidents in the immediate days and months following 9/11 included attempted murder upon a Palestinian male who was shot at after leaving his Mosque in Seattle, a Pakistani woman who was nearly run over by a car in the parking lot of a New York mall, and an American Muslim women who was nearly choked to death by her attacker in Texas.
An Islamic Center in Irving, Texas, was fired upon, leaving thirteen to fourteen bullet holes on the building, while another Mosque in Central Ohio was severely vandalized: the bathroom pipe was broken, the sink was clogged, causing it to overflow for hours and eventually leaking into the second floor prayer hall; frames of religious verses were torn, a chandelier in the prayer hall was destroyed, high-mounted speakers and amplifiers were thrown to the ground, Islamic posters were torn from classroom walls, curtains and drapes were pulled down, bookcases and file cabinets were tipped over, approximately one hundred copies of the Qur’an was thrown to the floor; one of them was torn and placed in the parking lot. The damage to the Mosque was estimated at $379,000.
In April of 2006, a Muslim woman and college student was followed, beaten, and stripped of her headscarf while her male perpetrator shouted anti-Muslim slurs. She was hospitalized for contusions and a dislocated shoulder. Also in 2006, a Muslim man in New York was beaten with brass knuckles by a group of five teenagers after exiting “Dunkin’ Donuts”; he was called a “terrorist” by the assailants and was later hospitalized for a broken nose and severely bruised ribs.
In September of 2007, Zohreh Assemi, an Iranian Muslim-American and owner of a nail salon in New York, was robbed, brutally beaten, and called a “terrorist.” The report describes the details:
Assemi was kicked, sliced with a boxcutter, and had her hand smashed with a hammer. The perpatrators, who forcibly removed $2,000 from the saloon and scrawled anti-Muslim slurs on the mirrors, also told Assemi to “get out of town” and that her kind were not “welcomed” in the area. The attack followed two weeks of phone calls in which Iranian-American Zohreh Assemi was called a “terrorist” and told to “get out of town,” friends and family said.
In 2009, AirTran Airways “removed nine Muslim passengers, including three children, from a flight and turned them over to the FBI after one of the men commented to another that they were sitting right next to the engines and wondered aloud where the safest place to sit on the plane was.” Also this year, a Muslim woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, was stabbed to death in a courtroom in Germany while being three months pregnant. The attacker, Alex W., was a non-Muslim man that El-Sherbini was testifying against because of his Islamophobic remarks towards her. In other words, she was killed for standing up for herself.
Are these reports new to you? For many readers, I’m sure they are. More details on the reports mentioned above, along with countless others, can be read in the following document by the Human Rights Watch: “We Are Not The Enemy: Hate Crimes Against Arabs, Muslims, and Those Perceived to be Arab or Muslim after September 11.” These reports do not even cover the number of innocent Muslims who have been abducted and detained in detention centers like Guantanamo bay.
The truth is that Islamophobia has an immense impact on many Muslims in the West, no matter what kind of discrimination they may or may not have experienced. Harsh stares, verbal abuse, or even ignorant questions also need to be factored in to understand the Muslim experience in the post 9/11 world. From a journal I studied a year ago titled, “The Effects of Discrimination and Constraints Negotiation on Leisure Behavior of American Muslims in the Post-September 11 America” by Jennifer S. Livengood and Monika Stodolska, all 25 Muslim participants (from diverse ethnic backgrounds) reported that their lifestyles and leisure activities (praying in public, jogging, traveling, outings with or without families, experiences in workplaces and school, etc.) was significantly affected and reduced by Islamophobia. Some shared how they felt “otherized” after seeing signs that read, “Kill all the Arabs,” and others shared how they couldn’t jog through the park anymore without someone calling them a “terrorist” or telling them to “go back home.” Some Muslims even expressed reluctance to share their Muslim identity or even pray in public because of their fear of Islamophobia. Just recently, Al-Jazeera confirmed a report that FBI spies infiltrated Mosques to monitor Muslim-Americans. At the end of the video clip, a young Muslim man shares how many Muslims are terrified to attend the Mosque because of this.
I have seen this fear with my own interactions with Muslims, including my own family. Some in my family do not like disclosing their ethnic and religious identity to people because they want to avoid the prejudice and stereotypes. These are stories that are not even known by most non-Muslims and never addressed by the mainstream media.
Shahrukh Khan may have encountered Islamophobia at the Newark airport, but will his status as a celebrity put the issue of Islamophobia in the spotlight? As mentioned above, his upcoming film, “My Name is Khan,” is about racial profiling against Muslims, but only time will tell to see what kind of impact that will have on the general public’s attitude and perception of Muslims and Islam. Regardless of SRK’s experiences, the fact of the matter remains that the Muslim lifestyle is very politicized, and has been ever since 9/11, even if the individual does not wish to discuss politics or social issues. Muslims are still asked to answer for crimes that they never committed, they still face the daily vilification of their way of life in the mainstream media, they are still stereotyped, discriminated against, and victims of hate crimes, vandalism, and verbal abuse.
If Islamophobia is not taken more seriously or spoken out against, more stories will be forgotten, more people will suffer, and the next generation of Muslims will be born into societies that already have negative, hateful, and/or insensitive attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. By ignoring Islamophobia, we are ignoring the struggle of our fellow human beings, as well as our own responsibility to speak out against injustice wherever it occurs.