By their very nature airports are the most racist and prejudiced places in the world. Every nation has its stereotyping and it is that arbitrary yardstick which is deployed to measure the welcome level of a visitor. Often, whole nationalities have to pay a price for a certain latent hostility that exists about them in the minds of the host country.
Much of these uncharitable imagings are the product of media projection and perceptions, which become dominant. Add to it the very real spectre of breached security and you have a perfectly valid reason to suspect, detain, and question anyone you want without fear of repercussions.
Let us take the case of Indian film actor Shah Rukh Khan who is in the fortunate position of having the Indian government rush to his rescue, in itself a rather dramatic attitude for a two-hour delay. Thousands of other Indians, highly accomplished, unsurprisingly stand in mute submission for much longer that two hours in immigration queues. It is one of the ironies of the Indian subcontinent that a film star can provoke outrage and bring the Foreign Minister to speak out with drenched righteousness, while thousands of hardworking Indians in the largest diaspora in the world placed in such a situation would be hard-placed to get through to their embassy.
Nothing really happened to Mr Khan, with due respect. In the word of Omar Abdullah, it was not such a big deal. No one says it should have happened nor does anyone endorse it, but this is the reality of the world we live in and if we get on a plane we have to face the fact that we might have to answer for someone else’s actions.
Africans going to Europe know they will be placed in another line. They know they are under surveillance, they just go with the flow. Muslims going to the United States gear themselves for the inevitable double check or the yelling of the signal ‘sierra’ which means your passport has Arabic stamps. Indians do it to Pakistanis and Pakistanis return the compliment…go meet the cops’ everyday that should make for some holiday.
Flocks of migrant workers, still called labourers and supplied to various parts of the world, know the moment they say goodbye to their home and enter their own airport they have no idea whether they have been duped or will actually pass through with a valid visa. You see them as stricken as sheep, surrendering to the caprice of the Fates. Arabs travelling in traditional dress instinctively know that they are either going to be questioned, conned or asked for money in many of their travels. Pointless naming where, they just know it and they can resent it as much as we resent being hassled.
If you land in the Euro-zone on an Schengen visa and are from certain parts of the Far East you are going to be moved out of the main line and given a closer scrutiny.
It is not just terrorism thought that is the prime motivator. Narcotics and money-laundering are two other major crimes that transcend boundaries. Add to that the trafficking of humans and there seems to be good reason for paranoia. Technology has also brought about a higher level of cooperation between nations to fight these common enemies of justice and dignity. Interpol is a glue that binds the police and investigative forces of the world to locate, apprehend and prevent criminals from doing the dirty. It is not an easy task to keep track of so many ‘wanted’ elements and a slowdown in clearances at airports are now the norm.
Of course, racial profiling is ugly. It is an ugly world. There is nothing positive about being put on hold when you are innocent but against the global backdrop of strife and terrors, of internecine wars and criminal gangs with GDPs higher than some nations, what does one expect the authorities in any country to do.
Mr Khan says he is out the sword because his name is Khan. I put it to him that while it is offensive to be indicted because of your name or religion, is it possible that he has the same name as someone on the wanted list, maybe a few common factors that the computer tabulates and spews out as an ‘alert.’ It is occurring today at every airport in the world. Every ‘alert’ has to be investigated. Maybe that or they are star struck and keep him there deliberately. The next time he travels he should pre-check his status or call on the US embassy and ask why he is being so profiled.
In that world we speak of, where pilots respond to crew sixth senses and offload a passenger because a steward feels he has a beard or is behaving oddly or is dressed funny or speaks some odd language this was not such a major issue.
Bikram Vohra is Editorial Advisor at Khaleej Times. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org