The Khizr Khan speech: How important was it for Muslims in America?

A speech by a Muslim immigrant at the Democratic National Convention could represent a watershed for Muslims in America, as they increasingly move beyond interfaith activity and into politics.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Khizr Khan, who's son Humayun (L) was killed serving in the U.S. Army, challenges Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to read his copy of the U.S. Constitution, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Penn., on Thursday.

Armed with a pamphlet-sized US Constitution in his pocket, and the heart-wrenching tale of his son's ultimate sacrifice, Khizr Khan delivered what may be the most talked-of moment in the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And it made political history for roughly 3.3 million Muslims in America.

Mr. Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and Muslim, spoke on Thursday night as a father honoring the sacrifice of his son, US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died while serving in Iraq.

The speech highlighted the patriotic resolve of a young US soldier killed in 2004 while protecting his unit from an Iraqi suicide bomber, but also underscored a shift within America's Muslim community, 15 years in the making.  

"For a number of years the Muslim community has been at worst apathetic or on a better level unengaged," says Khalid Griggs, a chaplain at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "But what has engaged the Muslim community more than anything else has been Donald Trump."

In December, after terrorist attacks in Paris and California, Mr. Trump call for "a total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the US."  

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslim immigrants attracted little attention as they lived, worked, and raised their families in the United States. Most were more concerned about getting an education than getting out the vote; indeed, some communities even debated whether voting in US elections violated Islamic principles. 

After 9/11, everything changed. Muslims living in America were thrust into the national spotlight, and sometimes even FBI investigations. Concurrent with attacks by Al Qaeda, and later ISIS, a new public American Muslim identity began to emerge, one that clarified both their faith and their belief in the American dream. This identity was on display Thursday in Philadelphia, where Khan described himself and his wife, who stood beside him, as "patriotic American Muslims."

"We believed in American democracy, that with hard work and the goodness of this country we can contribute and share in its blessings," Khan said, shortly before removing his copy of the US Constitution from a pocket of his coat. 

Post 9/11, the scattered Muslim communities in America, still largely defined by their immigrant homeland, had a decision to make, says Jocelyne Cesari, a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. Some chose to withdraw from community roles and isolate themselves inside a Muslim community for safety; others embraced proactive outreach she calls "transparent mosque."

That meant swallowing their fear, she says, and "knocking on the door of the local church and saying, 'What can we do together?'"

"They’re always afraid of what could happen, but I do know that it is always seen as positive in the neighborhood in which they live," Dr. Cesari tells The Christian Science Monitor.

This year seems slated to become another reckoning for Muslim Americans, as another wave in political and media interest in Islam is prompting Muslims, who flew the American flag over their mosques and reached out to local churches after 9/11, to wonder whether their public shows of patriotism had any influence over American perceptions about Islam.

"The immediate post-9/11 time is now perceived as the 'good days' for being Muslims," says Mr. Griggs, the imam of a North Carolina mosque. Being good citizens and good employees isn't enough. “Many have come to the realization that [public displays of Muslim American patriotism are] not going to make any difference in terms of proving their loyalty to this country," he says.

Such realizations coincide with the coming-of-age of a critical mass of second-generation Muslims born-and-raised as Americans, and these Millennials, often highly educated, are increasingly wondering how they can involve themselves in shaping the public narrative of their faith in America. Griggs sees these young Muslims in particular becoming active in politics as never before. For example: For only the second time, candidates for the local city council visited his mosque during their campaigns to try and drum up votes in the Muslim community.

Around the country, record numbers of Muslims intend to be heard at the polls in November. A "One America" campaign to register one million Muslim voters is in full swing, and 824,000 citizens with Muslim names are registered already, compared to 500,000 in 2012. Although the campaigns themselves are nonpartisan, they are motivated primarily by concerns some Republican leaders, including Trump, have made about Muslims, Gretel Kauffman reported for The Christian Science Monitor. 

The get-out-the-vote effort was echoed by Khan's speech at the Democratic convention. 

"I ask every patriot American, all Muslim immigrants, and all immigrants to not take this election lightly. This is a historic election, and I request to honor the sacrifice of my son and on election day take the time to get out and vote," Khan said in a speech that endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and condemned Republican nominee Trump as a "divider."

As if in answer, Politico reported, Google searches for the words "register to vote" spiked immediately after his speech, suggesting Muslims are making 2016 another watershed year for their religious community's history in America.  

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