After Khan vs. Trump, It's Clear: This Is America's First Muslim Election

America is plucking petals off a flower. 'I can trust Islam,' 'I must ban Islam,' 'I like Muslims,' 'I'm afraid of Muslims.' But this election, it's decision time.

Khizr Khan gestures as his wife looks on during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 28, 2016.
Timothy A. Clary, AFP

A month ago, I was in a Bosnia — just as insomniac as every other deeply Muslim place. Every night I stayed up late, turbocharged by coffee and Ramadan prayer, all but overwhelmed by the gorgeousness of the Ottoman old town. I found myself thinking: I don’t want to go back to America. Please, Allah, find me a way to stay. 

A few weeks later, I was at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute. I should disclaim: I work there — teaching a course on Islam to North American rabbis. I spent my free time between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, challenged and even overwhelmed. I found myself thinking the same, though: I don’t want to go back.

It took me a few very sleepless nights to understand.

My wife was waiting in Brooklyn for me, after all. My father and my brother. Nephews and a niece. Most of my closest friends. It wasn’t because I didn’t miss America. It’s because America itself had gone missing. Or nuts. 

Donald Trump had offended nearly every constituency possible, and yet nothing slowed him down. Like the Hulk, he just got stronger with every attack. (Except he’s orange, not green.) How could I continue to identify with a country half of which sees fit to zealously embrace a racist bigot, a know-nothing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic blowhard with fascist tendencies and a predilection for (a) war crimes and (b) running away from actual war?

How could I want to stay in a place so excited about a man who wants to deport millions of people, and ban my co-religionists from the country?

But I had no time machine. No Doc Brown to teach me how to go back and make it right. I couldn't even imagine what it'd take to undo the damage. 

Many of us American Muslims, especially of recent immigrant origin, came to believe that our spokespersons couldn’t have accents, awkward names, dress except in “American” clothes — whatever tied us to our motherlands and fatherlands should be jettisoned, looked down on with a hypocritical newcomer’s insecure self-righteousness. We had to look like mainstream white Americans, and sound like white Americans, to be accepted.

Now most American Muslims are either African-American or the descendants of recent immigrants. (Some thirty percent are African-American, while another thirty percent are South Asian.) Unfortunately, this difference has sometimes turned into a bitter division. Many Muslims of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin have unintentionally dismissed, or worse actively ignored and maligned, their African-American brothers and sisters. The wounds run deep. It affects us even discursively.

Some Muslims lazily (or irresponsibly and dangerously) divide our very complicated community into either the “indigenous” — African-American, usually — or “immigrant” — even as this becomes nonsensical with any reflection. Since I was born in America but am a brown-skinned Pakistani, which one am I? What about a Kosovar Muslim, who is ethnically European and racially white, but arrived here, say, fifteen years ago, and sees America through a newcomer’s eyes?

The bigger problem, of course: this schema is nativist. The people who divide Muslims into immigrant versus indigenous sound suspiciously like white supremacists, even if they’re not. But we are affected by what we hear, even if we disagree with it.  

That’s why I couldn’t have believed Khizr Khan would be Donald Trump’s Kryptonite. I mean come on. He’s got those Harry Potterish glasses. He’s got the accent. His wife was wearing a shalwar qamis, the “indigenous” dress of many Pakistanis. In fact Trump picked on her for that very reason, assuming that because she dressed like someone from Pakistan, she was, like anyone who is not a certain kind of white Christian man, incapable of emotion, rational thought, sophisticated insight, or patriotic feeling. He did what all racists and xenophobes do.

And he’s paid for it every minute since. Khizr and Ghazala brought the Donald Trump campaign to a standstill, with no small help, of course, from the candidate who, very much in the manner of a small, annoying child, simply cannot shut up. (Muslim Hell is a cross-country road trip with Donald Trump driving.) That old man — in South Asian, we’d call him an “uncle” — in adorable round spectacles pulled out a copy of the Constitution, and issued an attack that people of conscience might have despaired even existed.

Something Donald Trump had no response to. Gold Star parents versus billionaire bigot. “You have sacrificed nothing,” Khizr Khan thundered, in a most contained, calm and devastating voice, “and no one.”

Shows what I know.

Sometimes it feels like I’m living inside a country that’s sitting on the edge of the bed, plucking petals off a flower. “I can trust Islam,” “I must ban Islam,” “I like Muslims,” “I’m afraid of Muslims.” America isn’t congenitally Islamophobic, you see. America is obsessed with Islam, which sometimes comes out as hate, and other times as fear, and other times as love.

The Hillary Clinton campaign might have made foreign policy decisions many Muslims are uncomfortable with, but in her words, and her actions, she makes it clear: You are welcome to the table. If you want a sense of what her administration might be like, just look at the convention. You might agree or disagree with her.

But she’ll let you be there and therefore your speaking your mind matters.

Lakers superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example, introduced Khizr and Ghazala Khan; Khizr opposes the Iraq war, which Clinton voted for. That's the mark of a leader. The ability to not just tolerate but cultivate disagreement. The Khans, in turn, captured the hearts and minds of the nation, proving that Islamophobia, though dangerous, is not yet dominant. And I believe that the Democratic Party isn't just doing this to score points.

I believe senior Democrats sincerely believe Muslims are part of our country. That standing up to anti-Muslim bigotry is the calling of their time.

This might be one of the most important elections in American history, which might explain why it’s so overwhelming to be a Muslim here, why it’s so much easier to sometimes wish you could watch this all unfold from far away, instead of being in the pot as the heat is turned up, forced to be swinging between excitement and terror until the very last moment. 

What we are living in right now might be called the Muslim election. We are the issue of 2016. Whether you’re for us or against us, either way—you can’t define yourself without us.

Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is a President of Avenue Meem, a new media company.