It Shouldn't Have Taken a Khizr Khan

Genuine religious freedom requires accepting Muslims even without their wartime heroism.

Paul Sancya / AP

I’ve found the Khizr Khan vs. Donald Trump clash exhilarating. It’s the closest thing Americans have yet seen to the famed “Have you no sense of decency, sir,” riposte that helped doom Joseph McCarthy. But it’s disturbing, too. If it proves that America can overcome the bigotry and ignorance that Trump represents, it also shows how much Trump has already set America back.

Start with the Democratic Party’s decision to feature Khan at its convention in the first place. The Clinton campaign understandably wanted to showcase someone who could rebut Trump’s slander that Muslims cheered 9/11 and should be temporarily banned from the United States. And in the story of Captain Humayun Khan, and the figure of his father and mother, the party had a potent counter-narrative. The problem is that in choosing a family that had displayed such extraordinary patriotism and sacrifice, Democrats sent the implicit message that Muslims must show extraordinary patriotism and sacrifice in order to deserve the same rights and respect as everyone else. The Democratic Party, after all, did not require that the African American, Latino, female and LGBT speakers at the Wells Fargo Center earn their right to demand equal protection of law by losing a child.

For all his eloquence and dignity, Khizr Khan himself accentuated this double standard when, in the opening sentence of his speech, he described himself and his wife as “patriotic American Muslims—with undivided loyalty to our country.” (Earlier in the week, Bill Clinton had said something similar, declaring that, “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together.”)

I haven’t reviewed the transcript of every convention speech. But I strongly doubt that the Clinton campaign asked any Mexican American, Jewish American, Asian American, Irish American, or Italian American speakers to declare their love for America and to disavow their connection a foreign power. Imagine, for instance, the furor that would have ensued had the Clinton campaign asked Debbie Wasserman Schultz to declare her “undivided loyalty to our country.”

I’m not naïve. Obviously, Khan included those words because his faith is now the object of public suspicion, just as John F. Kennedy’s was when he declared in 1960 that he believed in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.” What’s depressing is that such a declaration is more politically necessary today than in 2004, 2008, or 2012—because in the years since 9/11, Islamophobia has not subsided. It has increased.

What has happened in the days since Khan’s speech has been inspiring and disturbing too. Trump has attacked Khan, and been roundly repudiated for doing so. But most of the outrage, from both politicians and pundits, has centered on Trump’s criticism of a Gold Star family. That misses the point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with openly disagreeing with someone who has lost a child in battle. If a Gold Star father became a prominent crusader against gay marriage, those of us who support gay marriage would have every right to publicly challenge him, the magnitude of his personal loss notwithstanding.

What made Trump’s attack odious was not that he criticized a father and mother who have lost a son in war. It’s that by suggesting that Ghazala Khan was not “allowed” to speak, he recapitulated the anti-Muslim bigotry that made her convention appearance necessary in the first place. The reason politicians and pundits should embrace the Khans and repudiate Trump is not because they are Gold Star parents and he is not. It’s because they are defending religious liberty while he is menacing it.

Celebrating Khizr Khan as a Gold Star father is easy because it’s apolitical. Every American politician and pundit, no matter their ideological bent, pays homage to military families. Celebrating Khizr Khan as a champion of Muslim rights, by contrast, is harder. After all, some of the same conservatives who salute the Khans for their wartime sacrifice simultaneously demand a ban on Muslim refugees and warn about the imposition of Sharia law in the United States.

Hopefully, this is merely a passing phase in American history. Seventy-five years ago, Japanese and African Americans also needed to go to war to “prove” that they deserved full citizenship. Khizr Khan is an inspiration. But I look forward to the day when an American Muslim father whose son protested the war in Iraq, rather than dying it, can also ascend a convention stage and demand the equal rights that he and his family deserve.