(This column was published in DNA edition dated August 19, 2009.)
Ancient Persians, who were fond of the royal game of chess, named one of the more powerful and agile pieces on the board the Shahrokh. There are many explanations for the etymological roots of that word, but one of the more abiding theories is that the piece was so named because it could ‘check’ or stop (rukh) the rival king (Shah) from afar. In the modern era, that self-same Shah-stopping piece is called the rook.
US border protection officials at Newark who made bold to check the reigning Shah of Bollywood the other day have had extraordinarily to explain their actions in response to the bilious rage of his countless fans. But on the other, ‘republican’ side, there’s an equally vehement flock that argues that for King Khan to undergo the same security ordeal that a lot of us plebeians are ritually subjected to isn’t really such a big deal.
But as with many things that happen in an interconnected world, this episode isn’t just about the momentary tribulations of one celebrity actor in a country that, for all its claims to being “the land of the free and the home of the brave”, is increasingly becoming the homeland of the excessively paranoid.
On the gigantic chessboard of geopolitics, the principal characters in this episode are mere pawns in a high-stakes game that has already witnessed a momentous powershift in favour of a player who is half a world away: China. The connections are not as facile as might appear at first glance.
It all started in 2001, a year that witnessed two game-changing events. The first was, of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US; the second, less-appreciated event was China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation and onto the big stage of global trade. This meant that at about the same time that the US began building a fortress at its borders and making it more difficult for visitors to secure entry rights, particularly if they had an Islamic connection or even just a Muslim-sounding name (as happened with Kamal Hassan), China began rolling out the red carpet to the world.
Nowhere was the impact of this more profoundly felt than in the Arab world, given the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were predominantly Arab. As economist Ben Simpfendorfer chronicles in his book The New Silk Road, Arab traders found it increasingly difficult to travel to the US (and, to an extent, to Europe as well) owing to visa restrictions. Even after subjecting themselves to retinal scanning and fingerprinting while applying for a visa, they found themselves detained at US immigration when their names mistakenly matched those on a ‘terror watch list’.
At about the same time, Beijing relaxed visa restrictions to invite foreign investors and businessmen. And when Arab traders, looking for an alternative to the US, began flocking to Chinese manufacturing and sourcing centres, astute Han Chinese, Communist Party officials even built mosques and Islamic schools to entice larger numbers of petrodollar-rich Arab traders to make the crossing! China has since become the Mecca of trading for the Arab world. And, more significantly, improved trade relations are influencing an emerging strategic relationship between the two.
There are, of course, many contributory factors that account for America’s relative decline in recent years. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that one of the more compelling psychological reasons is an increasingly recurrent manifestation of a siege mentality that underlies security procedures at US border posts. For all the technological and material resources that the US commands, and for all its pre-screening of visa applicants, it hasn’t yet fine-tuned the balance between security and ease of visitor entry. And as the experience with Arab traders shows, it comes at a cost to the US. ‘ShahRukh-itis’ – extreme security paranoia, as exemplified in King Khan’s case – is effectively checkmating US economic and geopolitical power.