At a time of severe global and economic crisis, America is even more dependent than in the past on its traditional open-door policy towards foreigners and their intellectual capital. During the height of the Cold War, artists and intellectuals from across the globe flocked to the United States, not the Soviet Union. This longstanding contribution stemming from the free flow of ideas and culture has played no small part in America's economic and social development.
Eight years after 9/11 that tradition seems to have been transformed, however, by a national security complex that seems convinced that mindless profiling designed to humiliate foreign visitors is a valid substitute for effective intelligence work and sound counterterrorism strategy. Several recent incidents involving high profile Muslim visitors from India seem reflective of a pattern that will neither protect America from Al-Qaeda nor enhance her economic competitiveness at a time of global financial contraction.
Abdul Kalam is the former president of India, the head of state of the world's most populous functioning democracy. A national poll picked Kalam as "India's Best President." He is also a Muslim, and a renowned Indian patriot. As a scientist and aeronautical engineer, he played an important role in developing India's missile technology, and his work was seen by his compatriots as a valuable contribution towards enhancing India's national security. However, his stature, and even Indian airport security protocols that exempt dignitaries from being frisked, did not exempt the personnel from Continental Airlines from doing just that, as he prepared to board his flight to the United States.
What the former president of India had to endure is apparently not an isolated incident, but rather reflective of a pattern. Another recent example has sparked deep outrage in India.
The Indian community in Chicago invited one of the leading actors from India to participate in the windy city's India Independence Day parade. He is Shah Rukh Khan, known as the "King of Bollywood." However, he might as well have been King Canute, as far as the INS personnel at Newark International Airport were concerned. He was detained and subjected to humiliating treatment. It seemed that he was going to be forbidden entry into the United States, until the Indian consul general intervened.
The two incidents above may involve high profile celebrities, however, large numbers of academicians, entrepreneurs and professionals are receiving the same treatment, though without the media spotlight. There is a common thread in each case; a Muslim sounding name seems to have been the sole basis for detaining foreign visitors, and subjecting them to at times humiliating and offensive treatment.
Unquestionably, especially after 9/11, the United States, as with any sovereign country, has the right to protect its national security. There is a reason why visas, passports, and INS checkpoints are required at ports of entry. However, an important aspect of national security is adopting measures that exhibit common sense. It doesn't seem logical to believe that Al-Qaeda, not generally regarded as a stupid organization, will send only operatives into the United States who have Muslim sounding names. And how does the "King of Bollywood" or former president of India become a mortal danger to America's national security?
Islamophobia has run amok in the U.S., and it is actually undermining the nation's security and economic interests. One trend has already developed; America is gaining a reputation as a land that does not welcome guests with Muslim names. A growing number of students and entrepreneurs from Muslim countries are traveling to China in lieu of the United States. As America becomes increasingly seen as hostile to Muslims irrespective of who they are, while China is perceived as welcoming, these trends will translate into economic realities. Ultimately, there will be a price to pay, in terms of America's economic security, if it continues to inflict inexplicable humiliation among human beings who clearly harbor no ill intent towards the United States. There cannot be true national security without sanity and reason.