Shaheen Pasha was in Texas watching the Democratic National Convention on TV when Khizr and Ghazala Khan took the stage to deliver an emotional takedown of Donald Trump in what’s become a defining moment of the election season.
Like millions of other Americans, Pasha listened to Khizr Khan describe the combat death of his son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, with sympathy and admiration. But Pasha also felt something else: dread.
“I thought, ‘They’re in for it,’ ” Pasha recalled this week.
She was right. Pasha knows firsthand what it means to be an American Muslim who dares to challenge Trump in a public arena. Last December, USA Today published an opinion column by Pasha under the title, “Donald Trump is my son’s bogeyman,” about her 9-year-old’s fears that his third-generation American family would be deported because they’re Muslim.
Pasha received more than 100 emails and dozens of Facebook messages from Trump supporters calling her a liberal plant, an anchor baby and an illegal immigrant; they called her oppressed and accused her husband of beating her. One wrote that Pasha’s son was destined for the Islamic State and should be “taken care of” now. Another dug up an old photo of her son online, wrote “Islamist” across the child’s face and posted it on Twitter. White supremacists sent letters from North Carolina jails, including an inmate who assured her that if felons could vote, he’d cast a ballot for Trump.
The backlash Pasha experienced is just a taste of the vitriol directed at the Khans, who took on Trump on a much bigger stage and who look and sound more stereotypically “foreign,” complete with accent and head scarf.
But while Pasha was easy for Trump supporters to smear as just another suspicious Muslim, the Khans’ status as a Gold Star family – parents of a U.S. soldier killed in action – struck a nerve. Pasha and others have been stunned to see an outpouring of support for the Khans, shattering perceptions about who best represents American values.
If you told me even three weeks ago that an immigrant Muslim family would be the standard bearer for constitutional rights and service to country, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“I was born here, but they chose America and they chose to do this,” Pasha said. “They are the ones who are most qualified to be speaking toward the American dream, because they’ve lived it.”
In the week after Khizr Khan pointedly asked Trump whether he’d read the Constitution, a pocket-sized version like the one Khan carried onstage climbed to second place in Amazon sales, behind the new Harry Potter book. Military families, especially fellow Gold Star parents, have come forward to denounce Trump’s subsequent criticism of the Khans. Prominent Republicans, including several who at least tacitly support Trump’s candidacy, have lambasted their nominee.
And Muslims across the country are expressing a newfound respect for the sacrifices of first-generation immigrants like Khizr Khan, the ones whom younger, homegrown Muslims affectionately mock as “fresh off the boat” for their thick accents and Old World customs.
“I’ve done multiple mea culpas since he went on the stage. I think it’s really important that he’s visibly foreign, visibly ethnic. That Americans are allying with someone who looks ethnic and speaks with an accent makes that support all the stronger,” said Shahed Amanullah, a former Obama administration adviser who’s a co-founder of a Virginia-based technology startup, Affinis Labs.
Amanullah created a meme of Khizr Khan as Uncle Sam and posted it on his Facebook page Tuesday morning. Within 24 hours, the image – emblazoned with “I want YOU to read the U.S. Constitution” – was shared and “liked” more than 1,000 times.
“If you told me even three weeks ago that an immigrant Muslim family would be the standard bearer for constitutional rights and service to country, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Amanullah said.
This feel-good reaction comes with many caveats, American Muslims were quick to add. Many are uncomfortable with the sense that their fellow Americans will step up in their defense only if the Muslim in question is uniformed or demonstrably “patriotic” – as if ordinary, nonmilitary Muslims aren’t worthy of support.
As an American, this hurts me a lot. The strength of this country is that it has been a tolerant country internally – we’ve accepted everybody. But now there’s this fear and intolerance brewing.
On the flip side, there’s no shortage of Americans – and not just Trump fans – who refuse to accept Muslims as equal citizens, even when they do serve in uniform or public office.
“This family had no idea the Pandora’s box they’d just opened: Everything from their loyalty, their patriotism, their back story, their history would be dragged out into the public and, frankly, it was going to be misconstrued,” Pasha said, recalling her thoughts watching the Khans onstage. “My heart went out to them because I understood what was coming for them.”
Indeed, the backlash was swift from Trump and his supporters. Two days after Khizr Khan brandished his Constitution and said Trump had “sacrificed nothing, and no one,” the candidate was dismissive of the Khans in an interview with ABC News. He suggested that the Hillary Clinton campaign had written Khizr Khan’s speech – Khan says he wrote it himself – and Trump traded on the stereotype of oppressed Muslim women by implying that Ghazala Khan was silent because she wasn’t “allowed” to speak. She’s since explained that she was invited to speak but was too upset to accept.
Trump’s later statements called Humayun Khan a “hero” but pivoted immediately to noting that he’d died years ago – in 2004 – and segueing into discussion of “radical Islamic terror.” He also took issue with Khizr Khan’s continued criticism of him in national interviews and continued to feud with the family despite pleas from prominent Republican and military figures to move on out of respect for Gold Star families.
This family had no idea the Pandora’s box they’d just opened: Everything from their loyalty, their patriotism, their back story, their history would be dragged out into the public and, frankly, it was going to be misconstrued.
Trump’s response pales in comparison with that of his legions of fans, who filled web pages with conspiracy theories attacking Khizr Khan’s master’s degree from Harvard Law School, his immigration law specialty, his business connections and relationship with the Clinton campaign. Despite the accounts of soldiers who’d served with Humayun Khan and who praised his leadership, many Trump supporters cast aspersions on his service and, in some cases, on Gold Star families in general.
Even after Ghazala Khan explained her silence and offered public remarks, Trump supporters online and in interviews continued to flog the line that she’d been silenced.
That’s especially infuriating to Fatima Salman, a Michigan-based Muslim activist who didn’t recognize anyone she knew in that archetype.
“I was kind of, like, ‘Hello! You need to meet my friends!’ ” Salman said.
After Trump’s disparaging of Ghazala Khan, Salman and other activists brainstormed a social media campaign to fight the notion of the voiceless Muslim woman. After throwing out #YesWeKhan and #SheSpeaksNowListen, they settled on #CanYouHearUsNow. Within a couple of hours, the hashtag was trending in the top 10 on Twitter, as dozens of professional Muslim women touted their accomplishments before the world. Media queries poured in from the Netherlands, from Canada, from all over.
The response was encouraging, Salman said, but she knows it won’t do much to sway bigots who simply refuse to acknowledge the contributions of Muslims or African-Americans or Latinos or whichever group Trump targets in a given week. Whether he wins in November or not, she said, that willful blindness is terrifying, and won’t go away anytime soon.
“As an American, this hurts me a lot,” Salman said. “The strength of this country is that it has been a tolerant country internally – we’ve accepted everybody. But now there’s this fear and intolerance brewing.”