Khizr Khan speech highlights why it's a mistake to paint Muslim immigrants as part of 'savage cult'

One of the most electrifying moments during the political party conventions last month was Khizr Khan’s testimony to his son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq in 2004 when he shielded his men from a suicide bomber. I have never heard a more compelling declaration of patriotism than what this Muslim immigrant from Pakistan said.

It’s a long way from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to my computer in Waite Park, but there is a direct connection between Khizr Khan’s speech and the theme of my Times columns since my first one, nine years ago this month: “the renewal of human community.”

“Muslim” and “immigrant.” Too many people cannot imagine — cannot even stomach, really — the notion that these two terms can be linked to “patriotism.” And when the terms are conjoined — “Muslim immigrant” — they go ballistic. They see plots, threats, the “American way of life” under siege. They hint darkly that we are on the verge of the destruction of human community.

And then comes Khizr Khan and his 270 words — two fewer than the Gettysburg Address.

“Tonight,” he began, “we are honored to stand here as the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country. Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy — that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.”

His challenges to Donald Trump — “Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?” and “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? …  You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities” — are, in my estimation and in that of many Americans, including Republicans, both spot-on and devastating.

But my quarrel today is not with Trump. (That’s every day.)  It’s with those in our midst, and those they bring into our midst as speakers to inflame us, who tell us that Khizr Khan and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and good citizens and patriotic Americans who are our neighbors and are Muslim, cannot be true Muslims, because if they were, they would be adhering to a “savage cult” bent on the demolition of America.

If I want to know what Islam is, I’ll listen to Khizr Khan.

Or I’ll listen to his wife, Ghazala Khan.

She stood silent beside him on the podium. Trump subsequently insinuated she was muted by some supposed Islamic prohibition. In a pointed July 31 Washington Post commentary, she wrote she was silent because of her grief as a mother. “It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live. Just talking about it is hard for me all the time. Every day, whenever I pray, I have to pray for him, and I cry. The place that emptied will always be empty.”

And then Ghazala Khan says to Trump what I want to say to all the Islamophobes who read this column:  “When Donald Trump is talking about Islam, he is ignorant. If he studied the real Islam and Koran, all the ideas he gets from terrorists would change, because terrorism is a different religion.”

You can claim detailed knowledge of the Muslim holy book and conclude that its central teaching is holy war — and there are Muslims who read it this way. You can claim detailed knowledge of the Bible and conclude that its central teaching is racial purity, and the Ku Klux Klan reads it this way.

But I no more look to the KKK for knowledge about Christianity than to Al Qaeda or ISIS for knowledge about Islam. As Ghazala Khan says, “terrorism is a different religion.”

Khizr Khan’s speech put me in mind of another symbolically charged moment: Keith Ellison’s taking the oath of office as a member of Congress in 2007, with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.

James H. Hutson, manuscript division chief of the Library of Congress, studied the papers of Washington, Jefferson and other primary documents for what they say about the relationship of Islam to the new nation.

Hutson concludes they “explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it. Adherents of the faith were, with some exceptions, regarded as men and women who would make law-abiding, productive citizens. Far from fearing Islam, the Founders would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life.”

America is an experiment in the renewal of human community. Renewal is not the same as restoration. The goal is not “great again,” but “great in new ways.” And this has been true from the beginning.