Last week, when Khizr Khan, in his halting, firm voice, and Ghazala Khan, with her stricken face, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention, they riveted the nation. Theirs was the courage, not just of grieving parents, but of Muslim Americans, stepping forward in public. In this political climate, this is an attention most Muslims would never invite upon themselves. Muslims in America today are paradoxically over-exposed and invisible, making the moment of the Khans so remarkable. It is not just that they could be any of us. It is that they were themselves. That is the true breakthrough.
When we see the Khans—she with her sorrowful face, he with his careful bearing—we see the individual, the familiar. Those of us with immigrant fathers recognize the erect dignity, the man who takes his country of choice at its word, and carries with him a pocket Constitution. Others see a mother barely able to hold herself together as she stands in front of a huge picture of her slain son. Yet others see the solid and comforting body language of a couple married for 40 years. All their dimensions, their specifics, become visible to us. We can see them.
For more than two decades, drawing on my own immigrant family background, I have been writing fiction and nonfiction about immigrants, including Muslims. No other group, in the past few years, has lived within such distortions and hysteria; no other community has lived under so much surveillance, so many disturbing headlines blaring about them on TV. There have been terrorist attacks by some individuals in the name of radical Islam. Yet 3.3 million ordinary Muslim-Americans find themselves conflated with ISIS and terrorism and the global refugee crisis.
To cope, many curb what they say in public, or online. Some stay away from attending a mosque, for fear of informants. A friend refused to have a wedding in a mosque or near any religious institution, as she did not want to be put on a watch list. A young, attractive woman told me a story of an investor in her business, who wooed her personally, and as it turns out, was an informant. Others adamantly live their lives with open feistiness and joy, to refute the images that hem them in. There are countless stories of Muslims noticing unmarked cars outside their houses, trailing them on the street; of sudden visits from the FBI. Watching, suspicion, misunderstanding, saturates their lives.
At the same time few Americans know anything about Islam, the nuances and varieties of Muslim cultural identities. Fearful, they solidify Muslims into one menacing group set on taking over our country through Sharia law. Or—as in the case of Mrs. Khan’s obvious stoicism on stage—they distort, as Donald Trump did, saying she “wasn’t allowed to speak.”
Stereotyping is a form of dehumanizing. It strips out these details, these points of empathy from our eyes. It does not allow us to see. And when a demagogue makes use of stereotypes, this is exactly what he wants you to do. He wants to turn other humans into a flattened figure in his swirling landscape of danger and enemies. A demagogue is claiming you, and your own capacity to see and feel, for his own grotesque narrative.
Every immigrant, ethnic, and racial group who has been derided in history knows this damaging experience. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, most Americans have been made aware of “the talk”: black parents telling their children, especially their sons, to behave so perfectly in public, never to provoke if stopped by a policeman. When my mother was growing up even in New York City—a city of so many Jews—she was taught to never wear a star of David or anything that might mark her, provoke prejudice, or violence of others.
This pressure, this self-consciousness, is always there when you step into the public arena. To come forward is to enter a space that is already so angry about you, without knowing you; that is filled with a hostility and distortions that long precede you. You cannot just be yourself, in all your specificity, ambling throughout the world, good, bad, honest, loud, quiet. Before you even get up to the podium, you are stepping into a force field that is already filled with so many distortions and hateful rhetoric, so much projection. You are not seen. You are invisible.
And yet, remarkably enough, the Khans did step forward to emphasize the goodness and generosity in this country. Because we are also a generous country. We are not only a country that can generate these mean spirited and exclusionary stereotypes, we also bend and make way for the new. In the U.S., only half of Muslim-Americans count their close friends as Muslims, as opposed to 95 percent in other countries. We are a nation of integration and mixture, of getting to know the stranger. That is our strength and always has been—and the Khans, like so many immigrants know, that public space can be drained of poisonous rhetoric and make space for newcomers such as them.
Last summer, when working on a new novel, I spent a lot of time wandering around the streets of New York City, particularly as the month of Ramadan was drawing to a close. I saw New Yorkers going about their business: old men who had not eaten since before sunrise, gossiping on benches; women pulling their grocery carts full for a meal later on that night. I saw bored children making mischief on the pavement while their parents prayed inside a tiny storefront mosque. The scene that I will most remember was on Eid al Fitr—the 3-day festival marking the end of Ramadan. That night tables lined 74th Street in Queens, where women and girls made beautiful henna designs. I spoke to a group of teenagers about why they came out to do this, spending their last night of fasting out on the street. “We love this time,” they told me. “It’s where we get to be ourselves outside. We can just be ourselves.”
This is what we must all aim for: not just on a holiday, or a special moment, or a convention. We must work toward a country where we can all walk outside, and be ourselves, with our imperfections, our opinions, our individuality. We must all be able to be ordinary, heroic, light-hearted, serious. The Khans were brave to step up to the podium, and dare speak of their grief, their fallen son. But they were also brave because they were just themselves, in public. Let us embrace and know them. Let us mourn with them. Let us see them.
Marina Budhos is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the forthcoming Watched, a novel about surveillance of Muslim communities.