Last Thursday, July 28, one voice brought the audience at the Democratic National Convention to its feet before presidential nominee Hillary Clinton even made her appearance.
Alongside his wife, Ghazala, Khizr Khan, a Muslim Pakistani immigrant who came to the United States in 1980, stood on the stage with a serious purpose – to defend Muslim Americans from increasing bigotry in the United States.
Twelve years before, the Khan’s son, Humayun, had been an American soldier fighting in Iraq. As Khizr Khan recounted in his speech, he had once asked his son what he thought about fighting a questionable war in a Muslim-majority country. Humayun answered simply, saying that, as a soldier, he felt it was his mission to protect his unit. He ended up dying for this cause, on June 8, 2004, earning Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals for his bravery.
During his speech, Khizr Khan told a rapt audience about his son’s bravery, while also recounting his concerns about a potential Donald Trump presidency. Since declaring his candidacy for U.S. president, Trump has been neck deep in Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals, going so far as to call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
As the parents of a soldier killed in action, the Khans felt compelled to take their son’s story to a broader audience, in order to combat Trump’s bigotry.
At the end of his speech, Khan pulled out his copy of the American constitution. “Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with their future,” he said. “Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” The room erupted in cheers.
Unsurprisingly, Trump did not take Khan’s challenge well. Almost immediately after the speech, the Republican contender went on the attack, targeting Ghazala Khan, who had stood silently beside her husband on stage. Questioning whether Khizr Khan had prevented his wife from speaking, Trump insinuated that Ghazala Khan’s silence was a byproduct of Islam’s so-called oppression of women.
On Sunday, July 31, the Washington Post ran Ghazala Khan’s response to Trump’s accusations. Calling out his Islamophobia and ignorance, Khan addressed his criticisms, as well as her silence. As she explained, because of her continuing heartbreak, she had little desire to speak about her son’s death at the convention – when asked by her husband whether she wanted to say a few words, she had declined, opting, instead, to stand with him in solidarity:
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.
Donald Trump said I had nothing to say. I do. My son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, died 12 years ago in Iraq. He loved America, where we moved when he was 2 years old. He had volunteered to help his country, signing up for the ROTC at the University of Virginia. This was before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t have to do this, but he wanted to.
When Humayun was sent to Iraq, my husband and I worried about his safety. I had already been through one war, in Pakistan in 1965, when I was just a high school student. So I was very scared. You can sacrifice yourself, but you cannot take it that your kids will do this.
We asked if there was some way he could not go, because he had already done his service. He said it was his duty. I cannot forget when he was going to the plane, and he looked back at me. He was happy, and giving me strength: “Don’t worry, Mom. Everything will be all right.”
The last time I spoke to my son was on Mother’s Day 2004. We had asked him to call us collect whenever he could. I begged him to be safe. I asked him to stay back, and not to go running around trying to become a hero, because I knew he would do something like that.
He said, “Mom, these are my soldiers, these are my people. I have to take care of them.” He was killed by a car bomber outside the gates of his base. He died trying to save his soldiers and innocent civilians.
That is my son. Humayun was always dependable. If I was vacuuming the house and he was home, he would take the vacuum from my hand and clean the house. He volunteered to teach disabled children in the hospital how to swim. He said, “I love when they have a little bit of progress and their faces, they light up. At least they are that much happy.” He wanted to be a lawyer, like his father, to help people.
I cannot walk into a room with pictures of Humayun. For all these years, I haven’t been able to clean the closet where his things are — I had to ask my daughter-in-law to do it. Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?
Ghazala Khan’s article is a powerful one, reflecting the devastation of a grieving parent, as well as the shock of a Muslim American rightly anxious about Trump’s Islamophobic platform. Her full op-ed can be read here.