Khizr Khan: the rhino tamer of America

For Khizr Khan, the Prophet has left behind a blueprint for individuals to face every kind of challenge in life

Akbar Ahmed September 22, 2016
The writer is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington, DC. His latest film, Journey Into Europe, has just been released and he is completing the parallel book for Brookings Press

Khizr Khan will forever live in the moment he halted the rampaging rhinoceros of the American presidential election of 2016. One by one, Donald Trump had demolished and tossed aside the other Republican presidential candidates in the debates like a charging rhino. By the time he emerged as the leading candidate, Trump was expressing opinions that were prejudicial towards Muslims, Mexicans, and African-Americans; even anti-Semitic remarks and innuendoes were made. Being advised by notorious Islamophobes, Trump focused his wrath on Muslims: he would order the surveillance of mosques and shut them down, track Muslims in the US, make them carry special identification cards, and ban their entry altogether. Trump specifically said that Syrians who have come to the US as refugees would be deported. When asked by a supporter at a rally when “we” can “get rid” of Muslims, Trump replied ominously, “We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.”

Muslims were becoming increasingly nervous as these Islamophobic ideas spread in mainstream America, fuelled by the violence of ‘so called Muslims’ like the IS and other militant groups were committing. A correlation emerged between the negative discussion around Islam and the assaults on mosques and Muslim men and women that increased exponentially. Although Hillary Clinton countered with a strong and increasingly vigorous defence of the Muslim community, an impasse had been arrived at when the Democratic National Convention began in July.

It was at this point that Khizr Khan appeared on the national scene. He was scheduled to speak at prime time just before Hillary Clinton herself. Following a video introduction by Hillary Clinton, Khizr Khan spoke while Ghazala, his dignified wife, stood by him. On the large screen behind them was a picture of Captain Humayun Khan, their son, who died in 2004 in Iraq. It was a Gold Star family and it was a Gold Star moment.

Khizr Khan spoke for three minutes, but in that short period he faced and halted the charging rhinoceros in its tracks. He not only reminded Trump in a very direct manner that he had made no sacrifice for this great nation but, pulling out the US Constitution from his jacket pocket and pointing it to the camera, questioned aloud whether Trump had even read the Constitution or visited Arlington Cemetery, where those who gave their life for the nation, like Humayun Khan, lie buried. People in that huge arena were openly crying. The speech had struck a nerve.

Injured, bruised but still unbowed, Trump came back and attacked Ghazala suggesting that it was her faith which had prevented her from speaking. She responded in the media and this time, even Republicans like John McCain urged Trump to back off from the Gold Star family. In a television interview, Trump made it worse for himself. When asked to respond to Khizr Khan’s assertion that he had made no sacrifices, Trump replied that his sacrifice was that he had worked hard.

Because the American society is constituted as a democracy and people are essentially fair in giving speakers a chance to represent their point of view, an immediate swell of public opinion built up in favour of Khizr Khan. He was flooded with invitations to speak, gifts, and expressions of love. Captain Humayun’s grave became a shrine with daily flowers and cards. America had taken the Khans to heart. An American regiment was named “Khan,” in honour of the young fallen soldier.

So when Khizr Khan came home for tea with my family and some friends in late September, we were seeing him at the height of his fame. Yet the contrast between his heroic media image and his humble, courteous and scholarly personality could not be greater. There were three generations of my family present and he engaged each member individually and acknowledged them. All generations were moved by him. But Khizr Khan was not coming out of a cultural wilderness. In his early education in Pakistan he reflected a rich and sophisticated Eastern culture which he was synthesising with Western culture. His passion for Thomas Jefferson was echoed in his admiration for the towering figures of South Asia, like Mahatma Gandhi and Mr Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam. He loves to cite the great mystic poet Rumi. Above all, he was inspired by the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). For Khizr Khan, the Prophet has left behind a blueprint for individuals to face every kind of challenge in life. The Prophet was not only a religious and political leader, but also a loving husband, father and friend who was compassionate and patient in facing his trials.

As we lingered over our tea in this relaxed, intimate gathering, and as I reflected on his life story and his mission, Khizr Khan reminded me of another friend who also lost a beloved son. Danny Pearl, the son of Judea and Ruth Pearl and Wall Street Journal reporter, was savagely murdered in Karachi. Both Humayun Khan and Danny, although in a different context, lost their lives to the turmoil in the Muslim world after 9/11, and within two years of each other.

I often marvelled at how the Pearls had converted their immense loss into a passion to build bridges in our divided world. Instead of anger and hatred they were reaching out to Muslims in dialogue and friendship. After 9/11, Judea and I travelled across the world promoting Jewish-Muslim understanding and I know how much courage and willpower it took for Judea to re-live the death of his son every time we stepped on to the stage together knowing people would ask him about the tragedy.

Khizr Khan has done something similar by converting his pain and loss into a passionate mission to promote better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Both the Pearls and the Khans have felt the pain of losing a son cut off in his prime, and both have responded in a deeply spiritual manner that is all-embracing in its compassion. Khizr Khan’s impact on the ultimate course of the election remains to be seen. But it is certain that he halted Trump’s momentum and led Americans of all backgrounds to think seriously about what America truly means and whether Trump represents it. There was a noticeable impact on Trump, who was now more inclined to use the teleprompter, which served to control, although not totally curb, his outbursts. Muslims felt a surge of confidence as suddenly mainstream America had embraced the quintessential Pakistanis as its own.

The American presidential race is unpredictable and bizarre. At one point the size of the candidate’s manhood was debated. But it will be long remembered for having provided an iconic moment when the nation was reminded of its founding principles by a Muslim of Pakistani background. It was the ultimate paradox in the time of Trump that it was a Pakistani who had galvanised the nation around the idea of what it means to be truly American. It was the moment Khizr Khan became the rhino tamer of America.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2016.

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np | 5 years ago | Reply @Adil: "Rahul read the article with open eyes Pal… Khans are the Gold star family..and surely i do’nt have to educate you, what it means to be a Gold Star family" Yes it means that his son died a heroic death. It does not mean that Khan is not earning his living by getting investor visas for rich Pakistanis.
Rex Minor | 5 years ago | Reply @Rahul: The author lives in the past, whereas Khizar Khan and his family have personaly gained nothing to prove that their son was sacrifised in a war which was unjust and most today admit it. Donald Trump is sick in his mind and has not the chance to become the President, whereas for good or worse we will soon witness Hillry Clinton re-entering the white House with Bill Clinton as the first man. Rex Minor
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