It’s hard to imagine even the strongest Donald Trump supporter not being moved, at least temporarily, by Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last Thursday night. So many of the elements of an emotional blockbuster were present: the deep gratitude expressed to America by a Muslim immigrant success story; the supreme patriotic sacrifice made by one of his sons in military service; and the heartbreak of losing a child. And of course for many other Americans, Khan’s remarks raised major questions about the Republican presidential nominee’s views on the domestic security threats posed by refugees and immigrants seeking admission to the United States today, as well as by Muslims already living in the country.
That’s why it’s so important to explain why Khan’s speech, and the rave reviews it’s received in the establishment media, sadly exemplify many of the ways in which Trump’s critics on this score keep undermining constructive debate on these crucial issues.
First, Khan practiced a version of almost-always-irrelevant (at best) identity politics with his headline-making charge that Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one” for his country – unlike the Khans and the families of other “brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.” The clear implication is that the GOP standard-bearer – and all other Americans who haven’t lost family members in combat – have no right to speak out, or perhaps even to hold opinions, on matters concerning eligibility to immigrate or domestic terrorism.
Of course, few positions have been more un-American – at least once the nation began expanding suffrage beyond white male property holders. Freedom of speech and voting and policy-making are now completely independent of not only race and creed and wealth, but of experience – and properly so. Instead, they are functions of, variously, citizenship or residency.
In addition to being philosophically noxious to current notions of representative government, any other approach would be utterly impossible to put into effect. Just to cite one example – whose experience on Muslim immigration should count for more: Those of the Khan family and their like? Or those of the families of the victims of September 11, or San Bernardino, or Orlando?
And as some Twitter commenters have reminded me, Khan’s views on the subject would also deny Hillary Clinton the right to weigh in on these Muslim immigration subjects – for her family hasn’t lost anyone in combat, either.
Second, in recent months, Khan’s speech, along with Trump’s various statements on Muslim immigration, and especially on the American Muslim community, have generated a flood of statements not only expressing outrage that American Muslims’ patriotism could be impugned, but implying that, if anything, this group is actually more patriotic than the U.S. population as a whole. One especially popular version has emphasized how many American Muslims, like Khan’s son, have served in the American armed forces.
Of course, this is another form of identity politics. And “patriotism” can take many different forms. Just as important, though, is noting that, however admirable the life and career of the late Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 by a car bomb, it wasn’t an especially typical U.S. Muslim life.
The emerging conventional wisdom was summed up nicely by CNN: “Many [Muslims] have served in the military protecting the country against terrorists….” Stated ABC News pointedly: “Despite recent rhetoric against the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam has contributed a great deal to the U.S., including in the military, Defense Department figures show.
“Muslims have played an essential part in guarding the homeland and fighting for its interests in war-torn countries the world over, fighting in all major U.S. Wars….”
But the actual data these statements are based on – when placed into any minimally adequate context – tell a very different story. ABC News cited Pentagon figures as pegging the number of self-identifying Muslims serving in the U.S. military at 5,986 – including reserve and national guard members. That’s out of a total of 2.14 million total personnel in all these branches of the American armed forces. Do the math and U.S. Muslims add up to slightly less than 0.28 percent of servicemen and women.
How does that share compare with Muslim’s total percentage of the U.S. population? Not all that well. For that figure was 0.90 percent, according to a 2014 Pew Foundation study. So although the absolute numbers are tiny, America’s Muslim residents are actually significantly under-represented in the military.
ABC took pains to note that the Defense Department statistics show that “400,000 service members have not self-reported their faith. So the total number of Muslims currently serving in the U.S. military is likely higher.” But by the same logic, the total number of Americans of all faiths serving is likely higher, too. In addition, the Pew report found that the nation’s Muslim population is significantly younger than the American public as a whole, including those of prime military service age. So Muslims’ under-representation is arguably greater than the raw figures indicate.
Again, military service isn’t the only form of patriotism, and patriotism isn’t and shouldn’t be a legal standard for opining or voting or entering politics or government. (Immigrants who want to become naturalized American citizens do need to pass tests on the English language, and American history and government. Moreover, most are required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States, including a promise to serve in the military under any relevant Selective Service laws and regulations unless they can prove that their religious or other “deeply held” beliefs bar such activity.)
But the claim that the American military contains surprisingly large numbers of Muslims clearly is false.
Finally, like nearly all other critics of Trump’s Muslim immigrant and domestic Muslim proposals, Khan offers no viable ideas on addressing the special domestic security problems revealed by the data that these populations unquestionably present. In fact, he has compounded the obstacles to needed solutions by joining the chorus accusing Trump (and his supporters) of “consistently [smearing] the character of Muslims.” What Khan and the like continue overlooking is the exponentially disproportionate role played by Muslims – including American citizens and including the children of immigrants, who have been exposed to American values all their lives – in recent terrorist attacks, and the consequent imperative of focusing anti-terrorism efforts on this population.
Worse, Khan’s full-throated support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggests that he backs her plan to quintuple the admission of Middle East refugees, and thereby inevitably magnify the current threat.
Having never lost a child, I can’t honestly say that I feel the Khan family’s pain. Not being a Muslim, I can’t honestly say that I have experienced or even fully understand the frustrations no doubt felt by the great majority of American Muslims whose beliefs and actions have never jeopardized the United States. But I am someone who at least tries to concentrate on the facts rather than spreading anecdotes (either representative or misleading).
So I do feel justified in maintaining that Khan and his Islamic and non-Islamic enthusiasts need to start purveying less outrage and more wisdom, and recognizing the clear and present dangers posed to Americans by Muslim populations inside and outside the Middle East that are still in general struggling with reconciling their faith with the values of Western secular democracy.