His name is Khan and he is misunderstood
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Reuters)
When Bollywood heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan shared his views on religious stereotypes in an article in Outlook Turning Points magazine, it turned heads as the editors likely expected. Some media outlets criticized Khan, saying he sought “refuge in Muslim victimhood.”
Hafez Saeed, founder of Pakistan’s banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and a suspect in the Nov. 26, 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people, said Khan should move to Pakistan if he feels unsafe in his country.
Khan’s column in fact is a frank account of what it’s like to be the subject of stereotypes in a country you love, but that doesn’t always love you.
“Stereotyping and contextualising is the way of the world we live in: a world in which definition has become central to security,” wrote Khan, who has a Hindu wife, and practises the rituals of both religions. “We take comfort in defining phenomena, objects and people — with a limited amount of knowledge and along known parameters.”
Khan skilfully addresses this old problem, and it would be hasty and divisive to say that he was attacking the country that has made him famous. About 13 percent of India’s population is Muslim, but tension between Hindus and Muslims persists and occasionally flares into gut-wrenching violence.
It’s also a problem abroad. Remember the infamous incident in which U.S. immigration officials at Newark Liberty International Airport detained him in 2009. Khan wrote about it in this article.
“Some stripping, frisking and many questions later, I am given an explanation (of sorts): ‘your name pops up on our system, we are sorry.’ ‘So am I.’ I think to myself, ‘Now can I have my underwear back please?’”
Much criticism against Khan has been directed at this passage in his essay: “I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India. … There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country — this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India.”
Here’s a response from Venky Vembu in an article in Firstpost, a news and opinion website. “Oh, cry me a river, Shah Rukh. Millions upon millions of fans in India made you who you are — without pausing even to reflect once on your religious identity.”
Indeed, millions didn’t reflect, but that leaves out millions more who might have.
Khan’s message, if anything, appeals to the advantages of an India that remains rich because of its cultural diversity. In this passage, he refers to his family: “The four of us make up a motley representation of the extraordinary acceptance and validation that love can foster when exchanged within the exquisiteness of things that are otherwise defined as ordinary.”
Khan has done well at being true to his background and religion and an Indian and South Asian superstar. It seems like it would be good to appreciate his effort to talk about a topic like this in a country which has a long way to go in pulling down barriers and building up understanding.
(You can follow Anurag on Twitter at @anuragkotoky )