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Mother Or Muslim, Black Or White: The Tyranny Of Binary Thinking

Ghazala and Khizr Khan Khan, parents of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, take the stage on the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (Paul Sancya/AP)

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Ghazala and Khizr Khan Khan, parents of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, take the stage on the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (Paul Sancya/AP)

When Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan stood silently next to her husband, Khizr Khan, as he addressed the Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump was not the only viewer wondering if she would speak, and if not, why not. Her presence — visible on stage, not hidden in the audience, her head covered but her face revealed — both evoked and contradicted a host of stereotypes. Was she docile or restrained, modest or repressed?

Ghazala Khan explained her silence in a Washington Post op-ed, and the explanation was obvious if only so many viewers had seen her first as a mother rather than first as a Muslim. She didn’t speak because she was afraid of being overcome by emotion. And the question that so many didn’t think to ask, which was why she was on stage at all if she wasn’t going to address the crowd, had an equally apparent answer.

had they been American-born Caucasian parents, would Trump have questioned why the woman remained silent? And would any of us have discovered, to our absolute chagrin, that we’d wondered the same thing?

“I am much weaker than she is in such matters,” Khizr Khan told MSNBC in a subsequent interview. “Forty years of marriage [have] brought us in a position where we are strength for one another, so her being there was the strength so that I could hold my composure.”

Of course, I thought when I read this. They’ve been joined for 40 years, they’ve buried their son — of course each would need the presence, the physical warmth of the other to sustain them as they stood before millions to talk about their murdered child.

This loving, grieving couple was on the stage to repudiate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country. They succeeded. Trump was publicly shamed and viewers electrified when Khizr Khan waved his pocket copy of the Constitution and demanded of Trump, “Have you even read the United States Constitution? Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

The Khans were on that stage not just as a heroic soldier’s parents, but as Muslim parents. And that fact led many of us — including those who abhor Trump’s racism and xenophobia — to see our own stereotypes inform our response to them, however positive. After all, had they been American-born Caucasian parents, would Trump have questioned why the woman remained silent? And would any of us have discovered, to our absolute chagrin, that we’d wondered the same thing?

Years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, she became close friends with an Egyptian girl. Menna’s father was a graduate student in urban planning at Harvard; her mother had been a hospital administrator in Cairo, but now was a homemaker who took classes at the extension school. One Sunday they invited us and the parents of some of Menna’s other friends over for brunch. The conversation was easy and wide-ranging. We were all proud and entranced by our children, disturbed by the misogyny we heard in hip-hop, all delighted that our daughters had not abandoned each other in a quest for the attention of boys. We didn’t agree on everything — they weren’t allowing Menna to take sex education class at school, whereas the rest of us were ecstatic that our kids might be receptive to lessons about safe sex if they were offered by someone other than us. Menna’s parents didn’t simply suggest that their kids not go to Harvard Square until they’d finished their homework; unlike the rest of us, they mandated it.

We were of the same generation but reflected very different cultures. Though raised with some religious practice, I was a secular North American Jew. I and everyone I knew questioned authority, defied rules, and allowed our children as much decision-making power as we thought they could handle. But Menna’s parents were clear about their authority to establish rules, and much calmer about enforcing them. I was puzzled, admiring, and a bit jealous.

But my envy faded when Menna’s mother shared her anxiety about going back to Egypt. Though the Arab Spring uprising was still years away, the Muslim Brotherhood had been growing in adherents and influence. “My sisters now have to wear a hijab in public,” she told me, “and some friends have been harassed for driving. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get my job at the hospital back. Many women are losing theirs.”

Listening to her, I realized that Menna’s parents combined traits I’d never seen together. They weren’t old-fashioned but they also weren’t hip. They weren’t permissive but they also weren’t tyrannical. They were modern and devout, conservative and egalitarian.

even in a cosmopolitan town like Boston, even with the best of intentions, we tend to surround ourselves with people like ourselves. And homogeneity makes us -- even the well-intentioned among us -- binary in our thinking. It makes us ignorant.

Were they "typical" or some sort of only-in-Cambridge anomaly? Was that even a fair or meaningful question?

I had no way of knowing, because the mortifying truth is that they were probably the first Muslims I’d ever known, let alone had a meal with. Sadly, they were some of the last, because even in a cosmopolitan town like Boston, even with the best of intentions, we tend to surround ourselves with people like ourselves. And homogeneity makes us — even the well-intentioned among us — binary in our thinking. It makes us ignorant.

That’s why it was so valuable for the Khans to appear on stage and in the press, and would have been regardless of whether their son had been a hero or just another ordinary guy trying to get by. Most people are both valiant and prosaic, punctuating mundane lives with selfless acts. They are parents and Muslims, children and immigrants, disabled and accomplished, victims and rebels, mourners and survivors. What the Khans and the millions they moved illustrate is that most fundamental principle that continues to elude Donald Trump: Most people are complex, multi-faceted, and worthy of celebration.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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