Khizr & Ghazala, I’m 17, but thank you for being the role models I didn’t know my unborn children needed
Growing up, I could barely count on my chubby little hands how many people in the media I saw myself in, and that was only partly due to lack of mathematical ability.
I was lucky though. I had a fierce mom who decided that I needed to be able to count on both hands with ease and that I deserved to have role models that I could relate to. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t easy growing up an American-Muslim in an evolving climate of anti-Muslim bigotry, but it’s that much harder when you don’t even know where to look to find your community — your defense — yourself.
A few days ago, I was at the DC Office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and I was chatting with the interns and the staff, and the conversation gravitated towards what it was like to be American-Muslim nowadays. As the words escaped my mouth, it became abundantly clear that the experience is characterized by politicization. It’s easy (and often appropriate) to blame the media for creating the polarizing discourse that we are currently navigating, but to a confused American-Muslim kid — blame is unimportant.
I had the opportunity to be enriched at Muslim Youth Camp every year for 11th years straight. My mom forced me to go to every MYNA talk possible at the annual ISNA Conference. I grew up in conversation with some of the greatest American-Muslim leaders of our time because my mom resolved to make sure I was confident in the very fabric of my skin. I will always cherish the guidance, love, and nurturing of people like Imam Sohaib Sultan, Sister Amira Quraishi, and all those who showed me through their character what it looked like to be proud, humble, and most importantly — unapologetically American-Muslim.
Countless conversations, numerous books, and teachers everywhere I looked shaped my understanding of my Islam, my patriotism, and myself. I was gifted the knowledge to defend my very existence on a silver platter.
The current reality is that kids literally memorize decontextualized segments of the Qu’ran to bully American-Muslim kids, that what seems to be the majority of the country finds Islam inconsistent with American values, and that everywhere where you look there is someone with a negative thing to say about the American-Muslim identity — but you know what there hasn’t been? A Khizr and Ghazala Khan.
For too long, turning on the news was a montage of Islamophobic rants with no momentary pause to reflect on nuance. Even in the short glimpses one might find a Muslim on television, it is rare that they are ever there to be emblematic of positivity — let alone patriotism. I have seen in my own activism, high school experience, and social justice work just how intensely difficult it has been for American-Muslim youth. We have been made to feel like we can’t be American AND Muslim.
It is unfair, ludicrous, and detrimental to expect every minority child have the capacity to defend every action committed by someone of his, her or their same minority. Kids have the fundamental human right to just be — and there is beauty, power, and necessity in that.
American-Muslim kids have been denied that right — that is until now. I have been able to advocate for myself because I look around and see the passion of Linda Sarsour, the intelligence of Dalia Mogahed, and the scholarship of Imam Suhaib Webb. I have been able to understand the complexities of my identity because I see the patriotism of Rumana Ahmed, Haroon Ullah, and Rashad Hussain. But for every kid that didn’t have access to those leaders — Khizr and Ghazala Khan have changed everything. They have changed everything for me too —because now if it one confronts me about the legitimacy of my identity, I can point to my exemplars to refute their points, I can point to Khizr and Ghazala Khan.
With one seven minute speech, Khizr Khan showed the world what it looked like to be American-Muslim, and to be proud. He didn’t just bring an American-Muslim patriot into the homes of America — he brought himself into the hearts of America, and as pundits scrutinized every moment of his speech, humans were in awe of his humanity. With one camera glance, the DNC showed the world what it looked like to be an American-Muslim veteran through the powerful image of Captain Humayan Khan, may he rest in peace. With a magnificent Washington Post article, Ghazala Khan gave voice to American-Muslim women. With the arguably singular most important moment of this election cycle being an American-Muslim Desi Uncle waving a United States Constitution — suddenly, my kids will have an image in their textbook that they see themselves in.
They won’t have to look far to see the clenched jaw of of Khizr Khan, the captivating eyes of Ghazala Khan, and the legal framework of our great nation in our singular picture. They won’t have to look far to see that there is nothing contradictory about their identity, and for that — I am forever grateful.