My Name Is Khan

Shah Rukh Khan, the hero of many Bollywood movies, was detained by US immigration for two hours because his surname popped up on a watch list. Khan is the most common last name among South Asian Muslims; there are more Khans in the world than Smiths. Even in the US, it is the 665th most popular name.

Khan was an honorific title of Mongol tribes, and eventually was adopted as a surname by many people who are descended from a Khan or wanted to be associated to the name. Indeed, 0.5% of all men in the world carry a genetic marker believed to be passed on by Genghis Khan. There were strong selective pressures to help propagate the Khan name when the Mongols dominated the whole of Asia.


One among the hundreds of millions of people with the surname Khan is a very bad guy: AQ Khan, the man who built the Pakistani atom bomb and sold nuclear secrets to Libya and North Korea. But the surname alone has very little value in identifying a person in this case: US immigration should have known how common it is.

On the other hand, Indians tend to be overly sensitive in such matters. Only a month ago there was a furor because Indian employees of Continental Airlines frisked former President Kalam. This was considered an indignity: all Indian airports post a list of VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons) who are exempt from security procedures, a list that starts with the President and former Presidents. Indian culture accepts such special treatment for celebrities and retired politicians.

American culture is more egalitarian. Special treatment exists, but if a celebrity were to make too many demands, there would be a backlash. Diana Ross made an ass of herself by complaining about being frisked at Heathrow. Former VP Gore is routinely frisked, and is occasionally picked for additional search of his luggage. It would be bad manners for him to protest. Certainly his political enemies will heap ridicule on him if he had makes issue of it.

Shah Rukh Khan is a shrewd businessman, like all movie stars. He is about to release a movie named, (I kid you not) My Name Is Khan. A bit of publicity does not hurt him at this point. He said:

I was really hassled at the American airport because of my name being Khan…

The movie explores the period after 9/11:

Rizwan Khan (played by SRK) is a Muslim child who grew up with his mother in the Borivali section of Mumbai in India and who suffers from Asperger syndrome.Rizwan is arrested and detained when authorities mistake his disability for “suspicious” behavior. After his arrest, he meets Radha (a Hindu), a therapist who helps him overcome the ordeal.Rizwan then begins a journey to find and meet President Barack Obama (played by Christopher B. Duncan) in order to clear his name.

Would Mr. Khan like a trip to the White House?

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