9/11 and the Shifting Contours of Xenophobia: Studying Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan

 Dr. Hari Pratap Tripathi
                                                  Asst. Professor,
Dept. Of English,
St. Joseph’s College for Women,
Civil Lines, Gorakhpur, UP.
Email: prataphari661@gmail.com
Mobile: 9695705820

The 9/11 attacks on the giant twin towers of World Trade Centre, the citadel of American economy and on the Pentagon (the headquarters of the US Department of Defence) at the very beginning of the new millennium chronicle an apocalyptic moment in the history of the world. The terrorist attacks and the backlash following it proved the very notion of the American society as a ‘salad bowl’ to be a complete fiasco. Assessing the post 9/11 situation Nancy Kwang Johnson in her essay ‘Conceptualizing the Nation: Myths, Imagined Communities or Multiethnic Realities?’ The Cases of Israel, France and the US writes, ‘Post- 9/11, American case, known for its ‘‘melting pot’’, verged on becoming a ‘‘boiling pot’’ for the Muslim ‘‘other.’’ (Italics mine) (pg. 63)

Considerable attempts have been made since then to record the tragedy and the ensuing trauma from it through both cinematic as well as literary/fictional modes. There is a massive body of literature present today and even being added in the University syllabi. University of Maryland introduced ‘The Literature of 9/11’ as a graduate English course in the spring of 2014. In this rich corpus of literary and cinematic responses on 9/11 from across the globe South Asian cinema has a remarkable contribution. Some of the films that represent the catastrophe are: Yun Hota to Kya Hota (2006), Hope and A Little Sugar (2006), New York (2009), My Name is Khan (2010), I am Singh (2011), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013) from India, and Khuda Key Liye (2007), from Pakistan.

The present paper is a reading into the film My Name is Khan directed by Karan Johar as a South Asian cinematic response to the growing chaos and trauma caused by the attacks of 9/11. The backdrop of the film is post terror attacks American society (stretching to a period of 6 years after the attacks) and the drastic change in its policies furthering the ordeals of a particular community (here Muslims). The paper attempts to highlight how a kind of Xenophobia infiltrated and prevailed into the post attacks society. In addition to it the presentation answers the following questions: What is xenophobia? What is a stranger? Is the existence of stranger mere a myth or a reality? How is a stranger constructed? What is the locus of Xenophobia? How does capitalism affect xenophobia? How does globalization influence xenophobia and the violence done to the strangers? Thus, focusing on these questions I have made an endeavour to highlight the shifting patterns of Xenophobia and the socio-politico-economic and historical factors that affect this change.

Xenophobia comes from the Greek word ξένος, (Xenos), meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’ and Φόβος, (phobos), meaning ‘fear’. Hence it is defined as ‘dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.’ It can be seen throughout history in the form of communal clashes, racial attacks, ethnic cleansing, religious hatred and genocide. Casteism and the Hindu/Muslim riots in India, Sinhalese/Tamil tension in Sri Lanka, ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, purging of Shia’s and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, the Jewish holocaust in Europe, the tussles of the Chechnya and the ordeals faced by the Rohingyas are a few examples.

Narrated through the character of Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome (Fear of new places, new people, yellow colour and detest of loud noises) the film portrays a Muslim father’s lone journey to meet the president of America to say that his name is Khan and he is not a terrorist. In the opening shots of the film we see Rizwan looking at the travel itinerary of the then American president George W. Bush and immediately after this he is seen being interrogated at San Francisco airport:

Officer: Why are you going to Washington DC?

Rizwan: I am going to meet the president of the United States of America.

Officer: Why do you want to meet the American president? Do you know where Osama is?

Rizwan: Oh! No-no I have to say to him, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.’

Thus, Rizwan is catechized on the grounds of suspicion for him being a Muslim. This fear and detest of the stranger is xenophobia often termed as Islamophobia but in a very limited sense.

Further the film moves in flashback depicting Rizwan’s childhood days in India, the sad demise of his mother etc. The reference to the 1983 Hindu-Muslim riots in India and Rizwan’s repetition of the words of the rioters ‘All are bastards, we must shoot them’ symbolize the animosity that is prevalent both among Hindus as well as Muslims. This flashback serves as a referent point to the global pervasiveness of xenophobia. Further Rizwan’s journey to America gives pace to the plot and we see how in America Haseena (Zakir’s Wife) who teaches psychology in Brooklyn University, New York, diagnoses him with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of Autism.

Rizwan meets Mandira (Kajol) while selling beauty products in salons which he has been asked to do by Zakir (Jimmy Shergil). Mandira is a divorced Hindu woman who has an eight years old son. Rizwan falls in love with her and wants to marry her but Zakir does not give consent to Rizwan’s relationship with a Hindu woman. The conversation between Zakir and Rizwan regarding his plans to marry Mandira marks the deep prejudice both among Hindus and Muslims due to their difference in religion:

Zakir: Bhai, You can’t marry her. She is a Hindu and does not match our religion. Understand? If you marry her our relationship will end forever.

Rizwan: No. There is no difference. Ammi always said there are only good people and bad people. And Mandira is a good woman.

Despite Zakir’s difference Rizwan marries Mandira, adopts Sam as his son and they shift to Banville where Mandira opens a salon of her own. Their happy lives come to a dreadful state following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Rizwan and Mandira both sense this premonition immediately from the reactions of the white people in the community gathering to pay homage to the dead. The moment Rizwan recites certain verse from Quran to pay tribute to the departed souls it disturbs the attention of the people and they immediately leave the place since he is a Muslim clad in Kurta-Pajama with a topi on his head- an attire generally identified with Muslim and a marker of their identity.  The very appearance of Rizwan is taken to be a threat and hence an object of revulsion. Sensing this animosity Rizwan says, ‘In this part of the world history is divided in two parts BC and AD but now another division has set in and it is 9/11.’ This new division befalls like a death blow to the American Muslims and we see how a community which though being an integral part of American culture and economy is suddenly seen to be stranger and alien to the land therefore lethal to the sovereignty of the nation.

Tabish Khair in his discourse of the existence of strangers in The New Xenophobia argues as strangers are inexorable for humans and fear is a very rudimentary emotion, it is certain that ‘different socio-historical contexts will or can give rise to different types of xenophobia,’ (pg.3). With changes in human situations and thinking there always approaches a change in what we consider as stranger and what we fear. Hence, the fact that we need to fear the stranger cannot be taken for granted if it were so we would not be able to survive in this world. Formulating his ‘Somatic Marker Hypothesis’ the neurologist, Antonio Damasio proposes that emotional processes guide (or bias), particularly decision-making. He writes, ‘when the spurious alignment of emotion (fear) and object is pervasive, phobic behaviour will ensue.’ (pg. 6) The fear from stranger does not always culminate into phobia rather it is shaped by the context. Thus, the stranger of xenophobia cannot be a total stranger because such a stranger would simply not be comprehensible. Taking the example of the literary vampire Tabish states, ‘despite not existing in real life the literary vampire still contains not just what is unknown, but also what is thoroughly  known.’ (pg. 13) The strangeness of the stranger is always a definition of our own normality; without it the stranger ceases to come into existence. The stranger is thus constructed before our eyes out of a familiar person and a certain understanding of self and other turns a person into not just a stranger, but a hostile one. If we look into the history of Partition as well as into other later Hindu-Muslim riots in India we witness ‘how people who have shared a culture, a past, or even a childhood, found themselves pushed into the position of strangers who had to be combated.’ (pg.14) In the same manner, Muslims who were once part and parcel of the American multicultural society were constructed as strangers in the post 9/11 attacks and made an object of fear and abhorrence.

In his discourse on what a stranger is Zygmunt Bauman in The making and Unmaking of Strangers writes, “[S]trangers are the people who do not fit the cognitive, moral, or aesthetic map of the world.” (18) This simple definition lays bare two poles in understanding the reality of the stranger. The first pole is the world with its pre-defined cognitive, moral and aesthetic map; the second pole is the individual that does not ‘fit’, which means outside the predefined landscape of the world. ‘Not fit’ implies that the stranger is somebody outside the world, outside the system, outside the ‘crowd’ or outside the State. ‘Outside’ here does not indicate a spatial separation. Rather, as Bauman clearly presents, ‘outside’ refers to the non-conformity of the established cognitive, moral or aesthetic map or simply called later on the order of society. Order has become the supreme principle that anybody who jumps out of it is seen as a traitor, or a nuisance of the state. Through this Order, the State has the right to trample upon, or step on, and pin down the disorderly and send them to oblivion.

The fear and loathing of the stranger i.e. Muslims is so intense in the post events society as a consequence it forces many American Muslims to change their names and appearances to hide their identity. People are assaulted places raided even women wearing Burqa are mutilated. The very Identity itself is in jeopardy, the film portrays it aptly by showing how a Sikh is attacked on the grounds of suspicion of being an Afghani Muslim. The 9/11 situation as John L. Esposito notes, ‘led to the war on global terrorism against a dangerous global threat but also reinforced and fed an irrational fear of the religion of Islam and mainstream Muslims, not just fear of a dangerous and deadly minority of religious extremists and tourists.’ (pg vi) In the name of preventing terrorism thousands of people were arrested and detained without any criminal charges. Laws like PATRIOT ACT were implemented to fight the Green Menace- Islamic Fundamentalism.

Rizwan, Mandira, Sameer, Zakir and Hasina all undergo the depression of the mayhem in different ways. No one visits Mandira’s salon since it belongs to a Khan, a Muslim. In Sameer’s school a lady teacher while teaching world religions says, ‘of all the world’s religions Islam is the most violent and aggressive. It encourages killing or Jihad as they call in the name of God.’ Sameer is humiliated by his schoolmates since he is a Muslim and they put Osama’s photos in his wardrobe. Haseena (Sonya Zehan) is hit in the university premises we see how an invisible white hand pulls her hijab from the back saying ‘get out of my country.’ One is here reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of Anthropophagic and Anthropoemic strategies. Bauman argues that these are the two common strategies employed by societies to deal with the problem of strangers or difference-

  1. Anthropophagic = annihilating the strangers by devouring them and then metabolically transforming into a tissue distinguishable from one’s own.
  2. This is the strategy of assimilation: making different similar; smothering of cultural and linguistic distinctions; forbidding all traditions and loyalties except those meant to feed the conformity to the new and all-embracing order; promoting one and only one measure of conformity. (pg.18)
  3. Anthropoemic= vomiting the strangers, banishing them from the limits of the orderly world and barring them from all communication with those sides.
  4. This is the strategy of exclusion – confining the strangers within the visible walls of the ghettos or behind the invisible, yet no less tangible, prohibitions of commensality, connubium and commercium; ‘cleansing’ – expelling the strangers beyond the frontiers of the managed and manageable territory; or, when neither of the two measures was feasible – destroying the strangers physically. (pg.18)


The fear of the Islam grows nightmarish to the extent of eliminating them and we see how after the attacks Muslims are targeted and stereotyped as commodities either to be devoured or vomited.

With the death of Mark, (a journalist and a family friend to Mandira) in Afghanistan who is sent to cover the war, the animosity against Muslims seems to be rather intense. Once very good friends, it causes Reese (son to Mark) to hate Sameer. He starts avoiding Sameer thinking that his father died because of the Muslims. The conversation between the two in the soccer field makes it more precise:

Sam: Reese! You know I loved your dad. We are best friends, our moms are best friends.

Reese: You know what! You people are nobody’s best friends. All you people care is your damn Jihad.

In between this conversation some friends to Reese come and beat Sam to death. The investigating officer inspector Garcia tells Mandira that the death of Sam was the result of a community scuffle. This hatred is so grievous that even Mandira syas to Rizwan, ‘I must never have married a Musalman. Had Sam been a ‘Rathore’, he would have been alive today. He died because he was a ‘Khan’. He died because of you, because of your name.’ Mandira’s reply to Rizwan’s question that when should he return home since she has finally asked him to leave her home and go away forever is worth noticing:

Mandira: Leave me alone and go away right now.

Rizwan: When should I come back Mandira?

Mandira: When should I come back? You know? This, Banville, where almost 30000 people live, they all hate you. Go and tell them that you are not a terrorist. Why only to them, go and say to every citizen of America, ‘I am not a terrorist’ can you do that? Then why don’t you go and say to the President of America, Mr. President ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’ so that he could tell these people that my Sam was not the terrorist son of a terrorist father. He was just a baby, my baby. And when you do that then only return to me.’

And here starts Rizwan’s journey to meet the US president.

The draconian change in the American society and politics both at home and abroad to fight the global menace of terrorism and protect the sovereignty of the country can be viewed as a conflict for power. On the one hand we see it celebrating and preaching the democratic principles on the other its politics of intrusion in the gulf countries and its angst against the developing nations that might pose a threat to its supremacy. Power is always there at the locus of xenophobia. The constitution and reception of the stranger of xenophobia is always a question of power. Tabish considers capitalism as the dominant structure of power which arises in the 18th century (though with older roots) and transmutes itself again in the late 20th century. Power was predominantly imposed, maintained, and experienced in physical and material terms until the rise of capitalism. But it (power) grows more abstract with the expansion of consciousness in human society. In the same way when money transforms itself into capital as in high capitalism this leads to change in the source of fear and in the stranger. When there is ‘extreme abstraction of money under high capitalism, we encounter a greater abstraction of violence, and hence a different conception of the stranger of xenophobia’ writes Tabish. (pg 6)

The changing patterns of xenophobia have been classified as the old and the new xenophobia by Tabish. He lists some forms of old xenophobia as- ‘the fire bomb in the letter box of an immigrant; the Jew, Muslim, or Hindu being chased down a street by skinheads; the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan; the killing of people of a different ‘ethnicity’; even the violent imposition of another language or an alien lifestyle on any people fall under old xenophobia.’  (pg 3) The change in the socio-economic and historical context gives birth to newer forms of xenophobia. Tabish writes ‘old xenophobia is monstrous, spectacular, and quickly identifiable. New xenophobia, which must be seen within the context of high capitalism, is less visible, just as ‘hard’ cash becomes less visible when money transforms into numerical high capital.’ (pg 6) The fear and loathing of the stranger and the violence perpetrated on them as has been delineated through the film can be seen as an example of Old xenophobia.

A process of naturalization is central to Old xenophobia. It naturalizes itself by referring to a hoary past and to ‘natural’ (biological, evolutionary, genetic) elements, but these elements are always crafted and defined in the present. Nazism which combined both the concepts of Nationalism and Racism stands supreme as an example to understand this process of naturalization in xenophobia. Both racism and nationalism tend to ‘naturalize’ various ideological underpinnings with reference to a hoary past.

Old xenophobia is affected particularly by the rise of high capitalism, with its increasingly abstract structures of power. Tabish points out three factors that have contributed to the changing patterns of xenophobia, these are:

  1. Changing patterns of immigration in and from the mid-twentieth century.
  2. Changes in capitalism, or in other words, the movement from production based capitalism to high-capitalism, finance capitalism, or ‘globalization’.
  3. Changes in the socio-political organization in the First World, particularly Europe, with the rise and crisis of social welfare states. (pg.40)

Samuel P. Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations? argues that the most significant conflicts of the future will fall along the cultural fault lines separating civilizations apart from one another and one of the reasons behind it as he notes is ‘the world is becoming a smaller place’. (pp.25) The increasing interaction between peoples from different civilizations gives way to a civilization consciousness and hence intensifies the awareness of difference and commonalities along civilizations. The era of globalization has comparatively aggravated this consciousness of difference in the self and the other.

In the film the reactions of the motel owner Jitesh (Vinay Pathak) when an American hooligan throws stones on the window and breaks the glasses because he (Jitesh) is an Indian hence an outsider signifies the violent vehemence against Muslims. He says: ‘All this is happening due to Musalmans. They attacked the world trade centre 6 years ago and we suffer the blow. They wage Jihad and stones are hurled upon us. Blind Englishmen can’t you see the difference between a Gujrati from Gandhi Baba’s village and a Gunda like Osama! I am definitely going to put a board, ‘No Muslim allowed!’

A primary element of Xenophobia is narcissism. The affection to the self is so pervasive that we tend to push the other to margins, hated because on has invested too much in selfhood.

In both old as well as new xenophobia this is a common characteristic but it appears to be more deeply embedded in the self of high capitalism. The nature of high capitalism enables power to be exercised in the abstract. The narcissism of the empowered self, implanted in high capitalism, prevents it from seeing this glaring fact.

Old xenophobia framed laws that discriminated on the basis of visible difference, even as it sought abstract justification for such uneven structures of power. The proliferation of the theories of social Darwinism, racism, the ethnic/linguistic fervour of nationalisms makes it more precise. If differences were not visible, or readily visible, old xenophobia legislated to make them visible. The Nuremberg Laws (1935) of the Nazis serve as the earliest illustration of this legislative trend of old xenophobia.

Just as xenophobia has changed character over time and space, violence also alters itself. One can argue that a constant change has approached into the degree of violence with shifts in the society and economy from the very hunting-gathering society to the agricultural society, from the agricultural to the industrial society and today the era of globalization has largely mitigated violence on a physical level. But it seems to be an erroneous notion. Tabish writes, ‘sweeping socio-economic changes do not just lead to a decline in some kinds of violence, but they also mark a paradigmatic shift in our perception of violence.’ (Italics in original) (pg.125) Thus, New xenophobia does not just replace old xenophobia globally; it exists along with it, and sometimes justifies its own kind of violence with reference to the physical and material violence of old xenophobia.

Fear, difference and contact/border the amalgamation of these three elements leads to the construction of xenophobia, old or new. Speaking of fear Damasio argues that animals or birds (including humans) are not ‘innately wired’ for composite constructs of fear.  He notes ‘A baby chick in a nest does not know what eagles are, but promptly responds with alarm and by hiding its head when wide-winged objects fly overhead at a certain speed.’ (pg. 132) Thus, animals or birds do not suffer from ‘bear fear’ or ‘snake-fear’; instead, they are wired to fear large forms, growling noises, etc. What this suggests in the context of xenophobia, is the cognitive impossibility of fearing a stranger qua stranger, and it also explains why we give the stranger-to-be-feared certain animalistic attributes-hooked nose, large size, wily eyes, sharp teeth, etc. which help us construct the stranger in the image of the forms that might actually evoke some sort of instinctive fear in us.

So far as the element of difference is concerned in this physical world we are surrounded by difference which is the second constitutive element of xenophobia. We differ from one another at multiple levels but this does not mean that these differences make us fear. Yet these differences can be constructed in such a manner as to make one fear the stranger. Hence, ‘it is not the difference of the stranger that is feared when we are xenophobic; it is a certain construction and understanding of difference (which might or might not exist)’ notes Tabish. Mere Diffrence does not work, there has to be a meeting line of difference which can be termed as ‘border/contact.’ Thus the construction of difference across certain meeting points produce fear and this is central to the production of xenophobia.

A kind of Paranoia is the prime element of new xenophobia. It involves a kind of abstract and faceless fear. In this sense too, the fear cultivated by new xenophobia differs from that propagated by old xenophobia. Though certain strangers are made the face of this paranoia, what lurks behind them is the vast, faceless machine of high capitalism, those abstract and numerical flows of capital that impinge on our lives without becoming visible. This stranger is constructed in increasingly abstract terms also because its source is anxiety and paranoia, not just fear.

The agony and ambivalence of a community that has proved to be an essential ingredient in the salad bowl American society has been aptly presented through the film. It seems to be celebrating the idea of multiculturalism simultaneously being critical of it. Religious fundamentalism leading to vengeance of any kind has been denounced. We see how Rizwan counters the misinterpretations of Islamic doctrines and Quran by Faisal Rahman who misguides some Muslim youths in the name of religion inciting them to wage Jihad and live a martyr’s life.  Even he is seen helping the FBI to arrest Faisal Rahman, and rescuing the people from the flood stricken Wihemina, Georgia. Rizwan’s co-operations in building a peaceful society in the turbulent times can be seen as an endeavour to build common courtesy for people from different cultures and civilizations. I feel this courtesy be it at linguistic, cultural, religious etc. levels is a need of the hour in establishing a society based on humanity.

Finally, this courtesy and the herculean effort that Rizwan makes in his odyssey to meet the US president attains its reward and he proudly says to Barack Obama, the newly elected US president , ‘My Name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist’.

After the dramatic emergence of Donald Trump in the US politics, his jingoistic ideas and decisions have reinvigorated xenophobia. We already witnessed several repercussions of it. As Tabish notes, ‘Xenophobia is the attempt to reduce the other to a stranger and/or to reduce the strangeness of the other in a bid to empower oneself on terms denied to the other’. (pg.187.) It is not primarily about people. It is about power. It is essentially the index of an ongoing power struggle, enabled by the nature of capital, which is why its subjects-the men and women-change, but xenophobia like the proverbial river, seems to ‘go on forever.’ There is a constant need of introspection and the courtesy that has been discussed above to be maintained in the multicultural society. Otherwise to return to Nancy Kwang Johnson’s statement the American society will again galvanize itself from a melting pot into a boiling pot. It can be seriously addressed by ensuring-constitutionality, legally, economically, etc.- that power struggles (which cannot be avoided) are not institutionally biased against any particular group.


Works Cited:


Bauman, Zygmunt. ‘The Making and Unmaking of Stranger’, Postmodernity and Its Discontents. New York University Press. 1997.

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Avon Books. New York. 1994.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations? in Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993; 72,3.

Johar, Karan. My Name is Khan (2010). India.

Johnson, Nancy Kwang. ‘Conceptualizing the Nation: Myths Imagined Communities, or Multiethnic Realities? The Cases of Israel, France, and the United Nations’ in Michelle Hale Williams (ed), The Multicultural Dilemma: Migration, Ethnic Politics, and State Intermediation. Routledge, New York. 2013. Pp 50-66.

Khair, Tabish. The New Xenophobia, Oxford University Press. New Delhi. 2016.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (Trans. Sean Hand) The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland. 1990.

Pratt, Douglas and Rachel Woodlock. Fear of Mulims: International Perspectives on Islamophobia, Springer, 2016.

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