A Muslim ghost is haunting America

Entangling Trump with a dead US soldier’s parents was the obvious, most immediate result of the Khan incident.

Khizr Khan challenges Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to read his copy of the U.S. Constitution at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Losing a son in a war does not mean you become a warmonger. Mr Khan was in fact solidly critical of the Iraq war, writes Dabashi [Reuters]

A Muslim ghost is haunting America: The ghost of United States Captain Humayun Khan.

It was a perfect trap – and like a clumsy hippopotamus Donald Trump fell right into it and, once there, he kept digging himself ever deeper into a hole.

Hillary Clinton had given him a clue to the danger when during her acceptance speech in Philadelphia she said: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Biting the bait

The bait this time was not a tweet but the grieving parents of a Muslim soldier killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq, fighting George W Bush’s illegal and immoral war that has resulted in the almost total destruction of a nation state and helped in the rise of the murderous gang of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

The plot unfolded apace when Mr and Ms Khan, the dignified and eloquent Muslim parents of US Army Captain Khan, appeared on stage to share their grief with the nation and denounce Donald Trump for his anti-Muslim bigotry.

Mr Khan, addressing Donald Trump, declared: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” Then came the punch line: “Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the US constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy,” pulling a copy of the constitution out of his suit pocket.

It was perfect drama, perfect television and perfect politics: And it brought the internet down.

Trump went for the bait, reached for the wandering ghost of a dead US Muslim soldier, and responded in his habitually clumsy, thuggish, and ignorant way, targeting Ghazala Khan for not having spoken when the couple appeared on stage, mistaking her grief-stricken silence as a sign of her being a weak and repressed Muslim woman. That was a mistake the Clinton campaign knew he would make.

The liberal press rooting for Clinton kept the traction going, inviting the Muslim couple on to various talk shows to denounce Trump even more eloquently.

Trump responded more foolishly, exposing more of his arrogance, and crossing the red line of insulting the family of a fallen US soldier.

Collapsing patriotism into militarism

During the crescendo of this drama, a retired US army major general who was Captain Khan’s combat brigade commander, Dana J H Pittard, wrote a powerful essay honouring his memory and defending his family. Future historians will no doubt consider the Khan incident a crucial contributing factor if Trump goes on to lose this election.

Entangling Trump with a dead US soldier’s parents and letting him hang himself by his own shoestrings was the obvious, most immediate result of the Khan incident.

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The Clinton campaign had an equally, if not more important, objective met with the self-same spectacle: Collapsing patriotism into militarism, so it whitewashes Clinton’s own role in militantly waging the Iraq war, so that anyone who now comes close to criticising her would be standing next to Trump against these grieving parents.

Both objectives were met with impeccable precision: Clinton’s support for the illegal and immoral Iraq war is now wrapped inside an American flag, placed ceremoniously under a copy of the US constitution, carried reverently by the mourning parents of an “American hero” buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Exposing the plot

Like all other perfect plots, however, there is always a clue on the scene of the crime.

The plot was exposed inadvertently the day before the Khans appeared on stage in Philadelphia when Bill Clinton singled out all Muslim-Americans and demanded a test of loyalty from them.

When Trump insulted Captain Khan's mother, demeaned his ancestral religion, and denied them agency in their adopted homeland, he had in effect picked up where Bill Clinton had left off: Staging a bipartisan bigotry that engulfs Republicans and Democrats alike.

“If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror,” he stipulated, “stay here and help us win and make the future together. We want you.”

Very few people picked on that bit of “Trumpism” and gingerly criticised Bill Clinton, but the criticism paled in comparison to the full-throttle pageantry around the Khans .

The sentiments Bill Clinton had expressed in that sentence, however, had presaged the Khans’ appearance on the Democratic National Convention stage, and its racist prejudice had conditioned the death of their son.

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When the brave Captain Khan was, according to witness accounts, walking to his death towards an approaching suicide bomber, in effect he was trying to convince the Bill Clintons and Donald Trumps of his adopted homeland that he “loved America and freedom, hated terror” and deserved to be here.

When Trump insulted Captain Khan’s mother, demeaned his ancestral religion and denied them agency in their adopted homeland, he had in effect picked up where Bill Clinton left off: Staging a bipartisan bigotry that engulfs Republicans and Democrats alike.

Clinton’s concealed militarism

There are always unintended consequences to any nasty plot. The Clinton campaign did indeed manage to expose Trump’s racism even more, entangled him with the US military establishment that may in fact cost him this election, and in the process concealed her own militarism in a moment of patriotic fervour.

But in the process, the Muslim community in the US also found a dignified, articulate, and gracious couple to reshape this presidential election, and represent their much-maligned community as they dare to raise their voice against the belligerent transmutation of patriotism into militarism.


Losing a son in a war does not mean that you become a warmonger. On the contrary: Mr Khan was in fact solidly critical of the Iraq war on more than one occasion. Anti-war sentiments and activism is widespread among US veterans and their families.

The copy of the US constitution that Mr Khan held in his raised hand to denounce Trump’s demagoguery will come back to haunt Clinton, too, next time she wages an illegal war against another sovereign nation.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.