It is impossible to miss the message of the ‘miscommunication’ thanks to which Maulana Noor-ul-Huda was taken off an Emirates flight and thrown into Tihar Jail. What it communicates is that we should stop criticising Western security agencies for racial profiling and take a hard look at ourselves.
The maulana had told his son over the phone, “Jahaaz udhne wala hai,” meaning that the plane was about to take off. It was his misfortune to be seated beside a neurotic who took it to mean that the plane was about to explode. It was impossible for her to misunderstand him unless she had primed herself to do so — by looking upon his countenance, whose distinguishing feature is a flowing Maulana-esque beard.
This is not the first instance of a mainstream Indian being a little too eager to suspect Muslims of the worst not because of what they happen to be doing, but because of who they can’t help being. The police and the security agencies are routinely guilty of this fault, which became glaringly obvious after the Batla House ‘encounter’ in Delhi, when all the Muslims of the district of Azamgarh were pilloried.
It’s rather sad, because we are perhaps unique among nations in turning racial stereotyping into a joke. The Europeans do it all the time — ask the Poles — but their cultures are buffered by national borders. We make fun of each other at incredibly close quarters in every mohalla, and it has never hurt anyone because it is a cyclical game. Bengalis disparage Biharis, who make fun of Oriyas, who find Tamils laughable, who think Punjabis are weird, who believe that Bengalis are a hoot. Whoever you are, someone, somewhere, is laughing at you. There’s no way you can win, and no way you can lose. The even-handed culture of the game keeps it just that, and prevents it from turning into a simulacrum of war.
So, despite the well-meaning tut-tutting of Western commentators, we can confidently use stereotypes in every element of our culture. Our television and advertising are rife with them. And you can discover stereotypes of every culture, class and religion in the crowd scenes in Mario Miranda’s cartoons. No problem, we laugh, and carry on regardless.
But games which no one is supposed to win or lose are rare, fragile things. Their logic falls apart when one party begins to lose consistently. When the maulana failed to convince the police that he did God’s work, the whole Muslim community lost, yet again. They will never be able to recoup these losses because the culture of fun which forms the fabric of the game board is in tatters.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to stitch it together again. What I do know is that this week, I’m flying Emirates through Dubai and back. The very airline which Shahzad the Times Square bomber was also flying to Dubai. I’m taking EK 511, the same flight as the ill-starred Maulana. You meet exciting people on Dubai-bound Emirates flights these days. Not the maulana but the neurotic sitting next to him, for instance. I must remember to shave as closely as a Gillette model and keep my mouth shut until I get off the plane.