Autism and Religious Stereotypes

[The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. The article (slightly abridged and edited below) appeared originally in the Dawn on 18 February 2010.]

We all know that the most patriotic Indian Muslim according to the Hindu nationalist pantheon was the kohl-eyed Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hameed. Legend has it that he died blowing up US- made Patton tanks with hand grenades in the 1965 war with Pakistan.

After his new film — My Name Is Khan — which unwittingly conjures a similarly black and white world of good and evil, actor Shahrukh Khan qualifies to be India’s second most patriotic Muslim.

That is why Bal Thackeray of Mumbai should be eating his angry words. He ordered his lumpen hordes to vandalise a movie that has been co-produced by his spiritual guru Rupert Murdoch and which, in its theme, should gladden the hearts of all the supporters of Narendra Modi’s politics of stereotypes.

The movie in fact represents India’s saffron ideologues and their purpose which closely follows the famous dictum of George W. Bush — if you were not with him you were with the terrorists. That the protagonist of the movie is an autistic Muslim man with a moral precept akin to George W. Bush’s forms the backdrop to his quest to meet the American president to tell him that though his name was Khan he was not a terrorist.

Finally he meets and is warmly welcomed by someone who plays President Obama, but not before he gets a group of angry (Indian or possibly Pakistani) Muslims arrested by the FBI because they expressed their outrage at Modi and Israel.

In a scene in My Name Is Khan, the only time the hero — Rizvan Khan — loses his temper is when he encounters a group of fellow Muslims in an American mosque.

As their leader, who introduced himself as a doctor or an engineer, expresses outrage at the plight of Palestinians, Kashmiris and Gujarati Muslims, Khan remains absorbed in his prayers. The angry man wants to do something about the outrages though he does not spell out what that would mean. Let’s assume that they plotted some kind of revenge. Khan berates them as satanic, and in a gesture known to orthodox Muslims hits them with stones. The Murdochian message was: anyone angered by Israel or Modi was satanic, if also a potential terrorist.

Sensing his difficulty with unnecessarily complex ideas as an autistic child, Khan’s mother had taught him that there were only good and bad people in the world, and there was as such no shade of grey. The formulaic reasoning would still be agreeable given the context in which it was imparted. How that precept was discarded when it came to his romantic liaison with Mandira Rathore contains an unacceptable message that the movie clearly conveys.

It is in fact the unsuspecting pivot that marshals the plot of My Name Is Khan. Mandira, played by the versatile actress Kajol, is a single mother who lives in San Francisco. The two marry and she becomes Mrs Khan. Her son from a previous marriage also acquires the distinctly Muslim surname. That becomes a handicap when 9/11 happens. The junior Khan is pummeled in a hate attack by school ruffians, which kills him. Mandira blames her husband’s religion for the death and regrets marrying him.

“If my son had a name like Rathore and not Khan, he would not be killed,” she cries and adds a condition for her to accept him again. He must convince the world that though his name was Rizvan Khan he was not a terrorist. “Why just the people, why don’t you meet the American president and tell him that my name if Khan and I am not a terrorist.”

Khan sets off on his mission to meet the President. However, the sad part about this entire episode is that the movie reflects a popular stereotype, one that is supported by not just the Indian and Pakistani states, but also by the average middle class person as can be gleaned from the film’s success in Europe and the United States.

An implied message of the film is that only Muslims are angry or opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, that only Muslims are perturbed at the plight of Kashmiris and that only Muslims are outraged by a fascist administration in Gujarat.

And if there are only good and bad people, and they could be Hindus as well as Muslims, as Rizvan Khan keeps mumbling throughout the film, why did he have to convert Mandira Rathore to Islam and give her a name like Mandira Khan? Bal Thackeray should watch the movie. He will change his mind about it.

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