President Trump’s delay in reaching out to the families of four American soldiers
killed in Niger last month, and the ensuing discussion among Gold Star families about his actions, recalls an earlier controversy involving Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen soldier, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
On the final night of the convention, Khan took the stage with his wife, Ghazala, and in an electrifying moment, he pulled from his pocket a small copy of the Constitution.
“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans
to trust you with our future,” he said. “Let me ask you: Have you even read the US
Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” The crowd exploded in applause.
Few people had ever heard of Khan or knew of the sacrifice he and his wife had made for their adopted country before the couple took the stage. Their son Humayun Khan was killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign highlighted Captain Khan’s life and death in a short film that played before his father spoke. But the point was not just to honour the tragic loss of yet another brave American soldier; it was to repudiate the bigotry that had been spewing from Donald Trump’s mouth from the moment he announced his candidacy for president.
Whether his target was Muslims or Mexicans, Trump
had been insulting, taunting and threatening groups he disagreed with for more than a year, pledging to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and calling Mexicans “rapists.”
Khan had had enough. A Pakistani-born and Harvard-trained lawyer, a Muslim, but, most important, a patriotic, naturalised American citizen, Khizr Khan
revered the Constitution. He came to Philadelphia to teach Donald Trump
a lesson. Trump’s response was to pick on Khan’s wife, questioning why she was just “standing there” with “nothing to say,” adding that the Clinton campaign had probably written Khan’s speech for him. With his moving memoir, An American Family
, Khizr Khan
has disproved that calumny.
An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice Author: Khizr Khan
Publisher: Random House
is as much the universal story of the immigrant experience in America as it is the story of one particular family’s struggles and sacrifice. Like most immigrants, Khan came to America seeking opportunity, in his case the chance to advance his education. When he arrived in Houston in 1979, Khan didn’t expect to stay beyond the time it would take him to earn and save enough to attend Harvard, which had accepted him for a master of law degree but whose tuition he couldn’t yet afford.
Khan had already fallen in love with the idea of America, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he’d stumbled across almost by accident as a young law student in Pakistan.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Khan read from a sheaf of papers he’d picked up at a bookstore in Lahore. “The thing is, those truths were not remotely self-evident. Not to a young man in Pakistan
and not to most people in the whole of human existence,” he writes. “But to me, a student in Pakistan, they were radically charged — as revolutionary as they’d been two centuries earlier when they were fixed to paper.”
Thus began Khan’s long journey to becoming an American, a journey that took him from Pakistan, where his family were poor farmers, to university and law school, to his first job in Dubai, his marriage to Ghazala, the birth of three sons and finally to Harvard, to Washington, to Charlottesville, Virginia, and into the homes of millions of Americans
on national television. Along the way, he sometimes faced gruelling poverty but also the kindness of strangers, including American oil company workers he encountered in Dubai.
“Were all Americans
like this?” he asked himself after his employer and the man’s wife gave him an apartment to live in, furnished it and stocked the refrigerator. “Did a nation of laws, of equal dignity for all, instill in its people a basic goodness?” he wondered, a question he answered affirmatively when he moved to America and was met with generosity from neighbours and others of all races and creeds.
Khan’s book is also a story about family and faith, told with a poet’s sensibility. Ghazala Khan may have stood silently next to her husband in Philadelphia — out of grief, perhaps — but Khan depicts her as a learned scholar with a master’s degree in Persian, whom he fell in love with instantly but had to woo over the objections of her mother, who was unimpressed by the prospects of a struggling law student. Their faith imbues every facet of their lives; but it is a tolerant, modern Islam, the kind practiced by most Muslims living in the United States and around the world.
The book is a wonderful refutation of Trump’s nativism and bigotry, but it is no partisan polemic. Khan invokes Ronald Reagan’s vision of a shining city on a hill several times in the book, a man Khan calls “my president,” and for whom he says he would have voted had he been a citizen at the time.
© 2017 The New York Times