Last week’s Democratic National Convention was a grandiose political spectacle of pomp and circumstance. It had everything: a star studded lineup of speakers, some remarkable speeches, notably by First Lady Michelle Obama, and President Obama’s address, which sounded almost like a farewell speech, a passing of the torch to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. The DNC show even had drama on the floor as remnant pockets of Bernie Sanders’ supporters booed and registered their rejection of the DNC nominee and process. However, it was Khizr Khan’s speech that caught the attention of the country, a speech that was as poignant, emotional as it was powerful in its style and substance, and which has started a national conversation on religious affiliation, patriotism, and Muslim Americans’ place in the political discourse.
The speech by Khizr Khan, whose son U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan was killed in Iraq in 2004, may just be the most memorable moment of both conventions. A poised Khizr Khan, his wife by his side, delivered an articulate, courageous, and defiant speech directly taking on Trump’s bigotry. In the highlight of the speech, Mr. Khan brandished a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and challenged Trump to borrow and read it: “Let me ask you, have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. Look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ Have you ever been to Arlington National Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending this country,” Mr. Khan said, “You have sacrificed nothing.”
The speech has elicited the admiration of many who empathized with a visibly grieving father, but it also engendered some consternation among those who didn’t think that the father of a slain U.S. soldier needed to affirm his loyalty and patriotism to the country. Mr. Khan’s declaration of loyalty comes two days after Bill Clinton’s speech at the convention, in which the former president made a rather “Trumpist” statement that Muslims in America should stay, but only if they “love America and freedom and hate terror.” In fact, at times, the DNC didn’t look radically different from the Republican National Convention in its embrace of militarism and a hawkish stance to foreign policy in Muslim-majority states. Viewed in this context, it is understandable that Khan’s overt affirmation of patriotism was agonizing to some as an indictment of the rampant sense of suspicion with which Muslims are viewed in the U.S.
But while anxiety was the attitude of some, conservative right wing pundits like Ann Coulter stooped to a whole new bottomless low when she mocked Khizr Khan as “an angry Muslim with a thick accent.” To Muslims in America, intolerance and rampant Islamophobia have become commonplace especially coming from the right’s merchants of bigotry, but Coulter’s tweet is dangerously rancorous that even the father of a young Muslim who made the ultimate sacrifice for the U.S. was not beyond derision. Nor was the Khan family spared by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who responded to Khan’s challenge in his usual boisterous and glib manner.
In an interview with ABC, Trump singled out Khan’s wife, who didn’t address the DNC, saying: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there…She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” In targeting Khan’s wife, Trump shows the depth of his moral bankruptcy, as he appeals to the right’s deep distrust of Muslims and Islam. Trump’s response is perniciously calculating and aims to evoke the criticism of patriarchy in Islam. In other words, for Trump, Khan’s wife didn’t speak because she was somehow forbidden to do so by her husband’s misogynistic religion.
Little did Trump know that Mrs. Ghazala Khan would personally respond to the bully. Since Trump’s chauvinistic comments, Mrs. Khan spoke on MSNBC and penned a formidable op-ed piece for the Washington Post, where she defiantly confronts Trump’s bigotry: “Donald Trump has asked why I did not speak at the Democratic Convention. He said he would like to hear from me. Here is my answer to Donald Trump: Because without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart.” Mrs. Khan also reiterated her husband’s charge that Trump “doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.”
In the same interview on MSNBC, Mr. Khan took aim at Trump’s innuendos of misogyny as he addressed his wife’s silence during the DNC speech: “I am much weaker than she is, in such matters…She’s my coach, and she was there. I was strengthened by her presence. Forty years of marriage has brought us in a position where we are strength for one another. So her being there was the strength I could hold my composure.” These are the sort of relationship values and mutual support that any American couple would understand, but that Trump could not fathom given his marriage track, and his own misogyny calling women “dogs” and “pigs” in the past.
The Khans have succeeded in confronting the bully in the most effective way and engaging prevalent U.S. values and norms. The Khans have increasingly become the story in this year’s electoral contest. Trump’s bigotry may have reached a tipping point, a watershed moment where most Americans, even some among what is left of his own party, won’t accept that a presidential candidate would denigrate the sacrifice of the family of a fallen U.S. soldier no matter what their religion is.
Notwithstanding the acrimony from Trump and his ilk, Khizr Khan’s speech and Ghazala Khan’s defiant op-ed achieved a very important service to Muslim Americans. It registered their presence at a very important political platform. Their remarks on their son’s sacrifice and the U.S. constitution were a stark reminder to the millions that watched the DNC that Muslim Americans are part of the mainstream of the American society in ideals and commitments. By invoking the popular discourse of patriotism and military, the Khans sought to debunk the false dichotomy with which some in the right view Muslim Americans and patriotism. Being a Muslim in America isn’t mutually exclusive with loyalty to the country. Mr. Khan’s speech and appeal to the militarist nature of U.S. society is a pragmatic adaptive strategy that will allow Muslim Americans to at least engage one party gradually as they struggle against Islamophobia.
Muslim Americans’ fight against Islamophobia will not be successful if they don’t seek strategic practical pathways to socio-political activism within the political system. The Democratic Party is not perfect, neither is Hillary Clinton, who continues to invoke Muslim Americans only as sort of a shield in the U.S. war on terrorism. Some may decry the fact that Muslims are viewed suspiciously by both Republicans and Democrats, but that distrust is more rampant within the ranks of the Republicans, who feature a high level of un-favorability towards Muslims and Islam. According to a July 2016 Brookings survey, only 42% of Republicans view Muslims favorably, in contrast to 79% of Democrats who view Muslims approvingly.
The rules of the political system in the U.S. dictate that Muslim Americans will only matter if they make a conscious effort to be involved in politics with all its imperfections. Muslim participation in various modes, networks, and organizations at the local, state, and national levels will gradually place Muslims in the rarified halls of political power. Muslim Americans must resist all calls for wholesale rejectionism of the political process in the name of post-structuralist arguments of dominance or fossilized religious interpretations. Doing so will only further ostracize the Muslim community and will not serve to combat Islamophobia.
Muslim Americans are facing a tough choice between Trump’s overt bigotry and neo-fascism, and Clinton’s hawkish militaristic foreign policy and use of Muslim Americans as pawns in the war on terror. But a realistic approach dictates that Muslim Americans must at least engage the side that has offered them a place at the pulpit, where we can also participate in the much needed discussion about reconciling militarism, neo-imperialism and democracy at home.
Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC will go down as a landmark event in this year’s electoral campaign season. It is a milestone for Muslim Americans and its value to Muslims in this country is immense, as it has started an important conversation in the U.S. about Muslim Americans’ loyalty, patriotism, and their general plight in the U.S. The Khans have also provided a template for how Muslim Americans can become more involved in the country by appealing to prevailing norms and values, not as a cultural capitulation, but as a concrete avenue to debunk misconceptions about their faith and identity.