Khizr Khan and the Presidential Election Mark a Muslim Moment in American History

I look forward to the day when American Muslims will be recognized not just by the religion they practice, but for the contributions they make to this nation.
11/04/2016 12:00 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2016
Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun (L) was killed serving in the U.S. Army, challenges Donald Trump to read his copy of the U.S. C
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun (L) was killed serving in the U.S. Army, challenges Donald Trump to read his copy of the U.S. Constitution, at the DNC.

Contrary to the famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that calls out to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and setting aside the spirit and ideas of the great Founding Fathers on religious pluralism, the United States has a history of hostility towards immigrant groups. And in this election climate, that patriotic stain has helped fuel the rhetoric of politicians like Republican nominee Donald Trump.

But long before the Trumps of the world talked of building walls and closing borders, America was exclusive. Many communities that settled in this country, I discovered in my year-long field study that resulted in a book and film both called “Journey Into America,” had to endure a period of hateful discrimination and often savage violence as they established themselves here. It would often take a dramatic bloody event, the death of someone ― or indeed the deaths of many members of the marginalized community ― before the group would become more widely accepted and eventually merge with larger American society. There is a distinct pattern that can be traced for this evolution: long decades of prejudice facing the community as it struggles to be a part of American life, a crisis which results in the taking of life or lives and finally acceptance by and into the mainstream. Though the experiences associated with each are unique and the alienation and isolation members feel may not completely evaporate, there comes a point in time at which the group ― and in some cases there is overlap between groups ―  is met with something other than hostility. It is that threshold of assimilation Muslims in this country now find themselves at with the presidential election and the story of Capt. Humayun Khan and his family.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on April 10, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Raymond Boyd via Getty Images
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on April 10, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Take the African-American community, which for centuries faced degradation, humiliation, lynching, rape and murder with heroic courage and dignity. It was finally the Civil Rights Movement, under the extraordinary leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his compatriots in the 1960s, that would begin to shift attitudes. But it would be King’s assassination in 1968 that would stun American society and burst the bubble of racial prejudice. It was the moment when mainstream America, however reluctantly, embraced the African-American community. Barack Obama reached the White House as a result of the sacrifice and struggle of MLK and others like him, including those whose names we may never know or read about in history books.

The Catholic and Jewish communities, too, have faced strife and though different, their histories resonate with this general model as well. Catholics, many in the case of the Irish escaping famine, were beaten, battered and abused on their arrival in, for example, New York, the main port of entry in the 19th century. Even into the 20th century popular entertainers suffered from anti-Catholic sentiment. The man who signed Frank Sinatra encouraged him to change his stage name to “Frankie Satin” to conceal his Italian heritage. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, his critics accused him of having loyalties to the pope and predicted that he would take his orders from Rome. It was only with JFK’s death that the anti-Catholic bubble burst and America realized the remarkable young president whom they had lost. Henceforth, along with Kennedy, the Catholics would become part and parcel of American society.

Roses are seen at the John F. Kennedy Memorial on August 26, 2009 in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Darren McCollester via Getty Images
Roses are seen at the John F. Kennedy Memorial on August 26, 2009 in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

Many members of the Jewish community faced animosity and anti-Semitism as immigrants arriving from Europe to find a better life in America or escape persecution. Acts were passed in the United States Congress restricting Jewish immigration during the interwar period. The Ku Klux Klan targeted both African-Americans and the Jews. A boatload of about a thousand refugees from Hitler’s Germany were refused entry into the United States and their ship was forced to turn back to Europe, and around a quarter of the passengers were killed in Nazi concentration camps. The consistent and generous contributions of the arriving Jewish immigrants to the development of America ― for example, scientists like Albert Einstein ― went largely unrecognized. It was the realization of the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust, especially when American soldiers witnessed firsthand the atrocities the community had suffered, that pricked America’s conscience and galvanized widespread support and empathy for the Jewish community. It was a turning point in relations between majority and minority.

For the Muslim community, a similarly defining moment may have been reached when U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gave a primetime platform to Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Though the tragedy of their son and the tragedy of the Holocaust are not nearly on the same number scale, the impact of each event on and for the community in the context of American identity noticeably altered the way society received them.

A visitor lights a memorial candle at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 2, 2016.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images
A visitor lights a memorial candle at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 2, 2016.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan stepped onto the stage framed by a photograph of their son, Humayun Khan, a soldier who had given his life in Iraq to save his fellows in arms. Few Americans had heard of any of these names until then. But, with the national spotlight on him and representing a proud if mournful Gold Star family, Khizr Khan entered history.  

He spoke briefly, boldly and clearly, embracing his Pakistani heritage as he pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution and asked Donald Trump if he, the GOP nominee, had even read the founding document. Khan was arguing on the basis of the Constitution and the vision of the Founding Fathers that Trump’s exclusion and disdain of the Muslim community was ultimately un-American. The very idea that it was a Muslim man who challenged a flag-waving white American essentially celebrating white supremacy is in itself illustrative of the distance my community has traveled in a short while. While Muslims had made an impact in America before, like the great boxer Muhammad Ali, this incident is emblematic of the larger process of change taking place. With a bow to Ali, it can be said that with one knockout blow Khizr Khan had shaken the ugly paradigm and social pyramid that had established Trump and people who thought like him at the top. Americans were suddenly looking at this minority group, which had been firmly placed at the bottom of the social pyramid, threatened with deportation, surveillance and faith-based immigration bans, in a new light.

Khizr Khan, father of deceased Muslim U.S. soldier Humayun, holds up a booklet of the Constitution as he delivers remarks at
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Khizr Khan, father of deceased Muslim U.S. soldier Humayun, holds up a booklet of the Constitution as he delivers remarks at the DNC.

Trump did not take Khizr Khan’s comments lightly, even going on to attack Ghazala Khan by suggesting that she did not speak because, he implied, Muslim men suppress their women. But the Khans are made of sterner stuff. Ghazala responded with a fiery editorial in the Washington Post. Thousands of ordinary Americans were moved by the story of the Khans and the sacrifice that they had made for the United States. Overnight, groups of military veterans jumped into the fray in support of them, outraged at Trump’s smear of a Gold Star family. Khizr Khan went on to continue his involvement in the presidential campaign, and was featured in a powerful and emotional ad for Hillary Clinton last month. Once again, an example of a dramatic death and the extraordinary courage and resilience of the community ― in this case, the Khans ― had moved the stream of history in a certain direction: humanization, and even, celebration. 

Even beyond the Khans, this presidential election has been momentous for the American Muslim community, especially in light of an array of very sharp and nasty comments. Because the community has been so shaken, I have observed a distinct uniting across ethnic, sectarian and ideological lines. Muslims are more active in electoral politics than I recall in previous elections. This year, realizing it has political potential, the community is determined to go to the polls in greater numbers.

Members of “Muslims for Hillary” are active across the U.S. and consist of a wide network of entrepreneurs, business professionals and media figures. In addition, Muslim organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations are fully plugged into the elections and Muslims are reaching out to other minority groups like Jews, Latinos and African-Americans. 

And this trend of Muslims having their moment in history ― Muslims being grouped with something other than terrorism ― extends beyond America, even amidst a tide of Islamophobia. Muslim immigrants today are able to say they have an increasing number of role models, or people of notoriety making an impact in their fields, in the West such as the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who was elected only a few months ago and Zayn Malik, formerly of the band One Direction.

Sadiq Khan attends an official signing ceremony as he begins his first day as newly elected Mayor of London on May 7, 2016 in
WPA Pool via Getty Images
Sadiq Khan attends an official signing ceremony as he begins his first day as newly elected Mayor of London on May 7, 2016 in London, England.

As a Muslim and Pakistani immigrant in Washington, I am acutely aware of the widespread terrorism, violence and breakdown of law and order in countries like my own often grouped together under the umbrella of a “troubled Muslim world.” But I have always believed that given the right leadership and circumstances, Pakistan ― and indeed many Muslim-majority countries facing tribulations these days ― has the potential to develop a genuine modernist vision of Muslim society as envisaged by its founding father M.A. Jinnah with rights for women, minorities and respect for the law. Khizr and Ghazala Khan are a product of that vision. 

Shortly after his encounter with the Khans, Trump was accused of groping and assaulting by more than a dozen women following the release of a tape with untoward comments he’d made about women years prior. Perhaps Khizr can remind Trump that a book authored by former President George Washington has the words “rules of civility and decent behavior” in its title, so important did the Founding Father consider these virtues as essential to the American character. Nowhere will Trump find any instructions about “grabbing the pussy” of the nearest female; nor for that matter the banning of any community to the U.S. on the basis of religion.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016
Brooks Kraft via Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. 

But unfortunately, the process of exclusion followed by integration has become a rite of passage for immigrant communities in the United States, way before Trump. Every community goes through this ritual. It is a prolonged, painful and public test. But as the above histories reveal, and as American Muslims are demonstrating today, immigrant communities are resilient. If we look for that moment when the community is finally accepted, we begin to recognize certain keystone events shared by both majority and minority communities, such as collective mourning over the Holocaust, the assassinations of JFK and MLK and the loss of young Humayun Khan. These touch points of unity provide the ultimate sign that a minority community is finally being recognized as fully part of American identity. In time, the people become the shared symbols of society itself.

It should be noted that when this happens, it does not mean that the stereotypes of the communities disappear overnight, or even the violence against them. Many stereotypes and prejudices go underground, and some are still present. For example, the cases of violence and prejudice against African-Americans are too frequent to suggest that racial equality has been achieved simply because Obama is in the White House. Some still hold the stereotype of Italians as mafiosos, as seen in films and popular culture. As for Catholics, documents released by WikiLeaks from the Clinton campaign appeared to indicate lingering reservations towards them. And the elections have shown that anti-Semitism lurks beneath the surface and can be sighted as it rears its ugly head.  

 A man holds up an anti-Semitic sign on a crowded Manhattan street.
Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images
 A man holds up an anti-Semitic sign on a crowded Manhattan street.

It is a fascinating time to be watching American society once again respond to, adapt and change in dealing with a minority and that, too, in the throes of one of the most unusual ― even bizarre ― presidential elections in its history.  A side effect will be the long-term impact on the Muslim community. It is precisely its openness and flexibility which make America still one of the most dynamic, exciting and hopeful societies on the planet.

We do not know what the long-term effects of the Khan family’s story will be. Islamophobia remains a serious problem, heightened in the passions of the election, and the association between Islam and terrorism remains widespread, as polling confirms. But I do believe that the story of the Khans has awoken Americans to the crucial realization that Muslims are as American as anyone else, and that they, too, have fought and died for the country. The tale of the Khan family may have marked a turning point in this process and pattern of minorities becoming American. It may well take a long time and require further struggle, sacrifice and more active involvement from the Muslim community before measurable change is achieved, but the important point is that however slow and hesitating, the process has now begun. And this gives me hope.

Supporters look on as U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally in Saint Petersburg
CHRIS KEANE / Reuters
Supporters look on as U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally in Saint Petersburg, Florida on August 8, 2016.

If history is to be the judge, Islamophobia will in time be contained and challenged from within mainstream society. I look forward to seeing Muslim women in hijabs able to go about their business without being harassed and assaulted, and mosques left free from attacks. I look forward to Muslims contributing as normal everyday Americans in every walk of life without fear or favor. And I look forward to the day when American Muslims will be recognized not just by the religion they practice, but for the great contributions they make to this country.

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