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August 4, 2016

Teachable Moments Abound in Khizr Khan’s Convention Speech

Essential question: What did Khan’s words about the Con­sti­tu­tion have to do with immi­grants and patriotism?


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On the final night at the [2016] Demo­c­ra­tic National Con­ven­tion, a Mus­lim Amer­i­can cou­ple named Khizr and Ghaz­ala Khan came to the stage and deliv­ered a patri­otic speech about their son, a U.S. Army Cap­tain who died in 2004 in Iraq serv­ing his coun­try. Khizr Khan, as his wife looked on, spoke for a mere six min­utes. The speech was so riv­et­ing that the dis­cus­sion about it con­tin­ued into the next day and beyond, many peo­ple call­ing it was one of the most pow­er­ful Con­ven­tion speeches.

In the speech, Khan talked about his son and his ulti­mate sac­ri­fice, Amer­i­can patri­o­tism and immi­gra­tion. He strongly chal­lenged the Islam­o­pho­bia and biased tone of the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial campaign.

In the days fol­low­ing the speech, sev­eral con­tro­ver­sies arose and it occu­pied much of cable news’ air­time. Ghaz­ala Khan was ques­tioned for not speak­ing. Alle­ga­tions cir­cu­lated that she may not have been “allowed” to speak, imply­ing it was due to her being Mus­lim. It was also said that Khizr Khan “had no right to say” what he said. In fact, iron­i­cally, the Con­sti­tu­tion (which he used as a prop and referred to sev­eral times) allows him to express his thoughts freely. In the after­math, promi­nent Democ­rats includ­ing Pres­i­dent Obama and high-ranking Repub­li­cans denounced the harsh words directed at the Khans.

The speech and sub­se­quent pub­lic dis­course pro­vides a teach­able moment to talk with young people—in the class­room or around the kitchen table—about a num­ber of related issues. Below are those issues and some open-ended ques­tions with which fam­i­lies and edu­ca­tors may start the conversation.

Our Con­sti­tu­tional Rights

A dra­matic moment in Khan’s speech was when he pulled out his pocket copy of the Con­sti­tu­tion and asserted the impor­tance of “lib­erty” and “equal pro­tec­tion (under) law.”  That sin­gle action drove sales of the Con­sti­tu­tion pocket ver­sion to hit the top 10 best­selling books on Ama­zon. And that’s a good thing for democ­racy and pub­lic aware­ness of our Con­sti­tu­tional rights, includ­ing reli­gious free­dom and free­dom of speech. Among other find­ings, a 2014 study of stu­dent and teacher per­spec­tives on the First Amend­ment found that stu­dents who take a class deal­ing with the First Amend­ment are more likely to sup­port First Amend­ment rights. It also found that, for the first time, Amer­i­can high school stu­dents show a greater over­all appre­ci­a­tion for the First Amend­ment than do adults.

Fol­low­ing the speech, there were state­ments made that Khizr Khan “has no right” to raise ques­tions about the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. In fact, one of Khan’s main points was that the Con­sti­tu­tion allows him free­dom of speech and he was, in fact, allowed to make crit­i­cal com­ments about politicians.

Ques­tions for Discussion:

  • In his speech, what point did Khizr Khan make about the Constitution?
  • What do you know about the Constitution?
  • What did Khan’s words about the Con­sti­tu­tion have to do with immi­grants and patriotism?

Stereo­types of Muslims

In the after­math of the speech, ques­tions were force­fully raised about why Ghaz­ala Khan stood at the podium and didn’t say any­thing, charg­ing that “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have any­thing to say.” This per­pet­u­ates the myth and stereo­type that Mus­lim women are sub­servient to men. In response to these accu­sa­tions, Ghaz­ala Khan spoke up on her own behalf and in addi­tion, Mus­lim women posted on social media using the hash­tag #CanYou­HearUs­Now in defi­ance of that label. Fur­ther, in sev­eral TV inter­views about the speech, oth­ers slipped in the words “rad­i­cal Islamist ter­ror­ists,” seem­ingly in an attempt to con­flate the Khan fam­ily with terrorism—another com­mon stereotype.

Ques­tions for Discussion:

  • What are some of the stereo­types you have heard about Mus­lims and how do you see this play­ing out in the lat­est controversy?
  • How does what you learned about the Khans or any­thing else in the news dis­pel the stereotypes?
  • In what ways are stereo­types harm­ful and what can we do about them?

Being an Ally When Fac­ing Bias

When Khizr Khan spoke about his son and his views on the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, he spoke not only about the mis­treat­ment and big­otry directed at Mus­lims dur­ing this elec­tion but also about other immi­grants, minori­ties and women. Khan used his voice to amplify the voices of oth­ers. Being an ally in small and large ways is an impor­tant les­son and skill to teach our chil­dren. In addi­tion to Khan’s ally behav­ior dur­ing the Con­ven­tion, when he and his wife were attacked, other politicians—both Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats alike—rose to be their allies and speak on behalf of them and all vet­er­ans and Gold Star fam­i­lies (bereaved fam­ily mem­bers of U.S. Armed Forces members).

Ques­tions for Discussion:

  • What does it mean to be an ally, on a per­sonal and polit­i­cal level?
  • How did Khizr Khan act as an ally and how did oth­ers act as an ally to him when he was attacked?
  • What can we do to be allies to peo­ple who are mis­treated, stereo­typed and dis­crim­i­nated against?

The Immi­grant Experience

Khan spoke pas­sion­ately about his expe­ri­ence as an immi­grant, mak­ing clear his “undi­vided loy­alty to our coun­try” and shar­ing his com­mon expe­ri­ence of com­ing to this coun­try empty-handed. He explained that they believed in democ­racy and that with hard work and good­ness, they could “share in and con­tribute to its bless­ings.” The United States is a nation of immi­grants and should always seek ways to build bridges rather than walls. As Khan stated, “We can­not solve our prob­lems by build­ing walls, sow­ing divi­sion. We are stronger together.” Indeed, a cul­ture of bias and big­otry towards immi­grants hurts all of us.

Ques­tions for Discussion:

  • How does Khizr Khan’s expe­ri­ence as an immi­grant inform his per­spec­tive on U.S. democracy?
  • How are the dif­fer­ent points of view about immi­grants and immi­gra­tion being dis­cussed dur­ing this pres­i­den­tial election?
  • How is the Khan family’s expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to or dif­fer­ent from the expe­ri­ences of your fam­ily or your friend’s families?
  • What do you already know about immi­gra­tion and what do you want to know?


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