Teachable Moments Abound in Khizr Khan’s Convention Speech

by: Jinnie Spiegler

August 04, 2016


Khazir Khan - DNC

On the final night at the Democratic National Convention, a Muslim American couple named Khizr and Ghazala Khan came to the stage and delivered a patriotic speech about their son, a U.S. Army Captain who died in 2004 in Iraq serving his country. Khizr Khan, as his wife looked on, spoke for a mere six minutes. The speech was so riveting that the discussion about it continued into the next day and beyond, many people calling it was one of the most powerful Convention speeches.

In the speech, Khan talked about his son and his ultimate sacrifice, American patriotism and immigration. He strongly challenged the Islamophobia and biased tone of the current presidential campaign.

In the days following the speech, several controversies arose and it occupied much of cable news’ airtime. Ghazala Khan was questioned for not speaking. Allegations circulated that she may not have been “allowed” to speak, implying it was due to her being Muslim. It was also said that Khizr Khan “had no right to say” what he said. In fact, ironically, the Constitution (which he used as a prop and referred to several times) allows him to express his thoughts freely. In the aftermath, prominent Democrats including President Obama and high-ranking Republicans denounced the harsh words directed at the Khans.

The speech and subsequent public discourse provides a teachable moment to talk with young people—in the classroom or around the kitchen table—about a number of related issues. Below are those issues and some open-ended questions with which families and educators may start the conversation.

Our Constitutional Rights

A dramatic moment in Khan’s speech was when he pulled out his pocket copy of the Constitution and asserted the importance of “liberty” and “equal protection (under) law.”  That single action drove sales of the Constitution pocket version to hit the top 10 bestselling books on Amazon. And that’s a good thing for democracy and public awareness of our Constitutional rights, including religious freedom and freedom of speech. Among other findings, a 2014 study of student and teacher perspectives on the First Amendment found that students who take a class dealing with the First Amendment are more likely to support First Amendment rights. It also found that, for the first time, American high school students show a greater overall appreciation for the First Amendment than do adults.

Following the speech, there were statements made that Khizr Khan “has no right” to raise questions about the Republican presidential candidate. In fact, one of Khan’s main points was that the Constitution allows him freedom of speech and he was, in fact, allowed to make critical comments about politicians.

Questions for Discussion:

  • In his speech, what point did Khizr Khan make about the Constitution?
  • What do you know about the Constitution?
  • What did Khan’s words about the Constitution have to do with immigrants and patriotism?

Stereotypes of Muslims

In the aftermath of the speech, questions were forcefully raised about why Ghazala Khan stood at the podium and didn’t say anything, charging that “maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say.” This perpetuates the myth and stereotype that Muslim women are subservient to men. In response to these accusations, Ghazala Khan spoke up on her own behalf and in addition, Muslim women posted on social media using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow in defiance of that label. Further, in several TV interviews about the speech, others slipped in the words “radical Islamist terrorists,” seemingly in an attempt to conflate the Khan family with terrorism—another common stereotype.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What are some of the stereotypes you have heard about Muslims and how do you see this playing out in the latest controversy?
  • How does what you learned about the Khans or anything else in the news dispel the stereotypes?
  • In what ways are stereotypes harmful and what can we do about them?

Being an Ally When Facing Bias

When Khizr Khan spoke about his son and his views on the presidential election, he spoke not only about the mistreatment and bigotry directed at Muslims during this election but also about other immigrants, minorities and women. Khan used his voice to amplify the voices of others. Being an ally in small and large ways is an important lesson and skill to teach our children. In addition to Khan’s ally behavior during the Convention, when he and his wife were attacked, other politicians—both Republicans and Democrats alike—rose to be their allies and speak on behalf of them and all veterans and Gold Star families (bereaved family members of U.S. Armed Forces members).

Questions for Discussion:

  • What does it mean to be an ally, on a personal and political level?
  • How did Khizr Khan act as an ally and how did others act as an ally to him when he was attacked?
  • What can we do to be allies to people who are mistreated, stereotyped and discriminated against?

The Immigrant Experience

Khan spoke passionately about his experience as an immigrant, making clear his “undivided loyalty to our country” and sharing his common experience of coming to this country empty-handed. He explained that they believed in democracy and that with hard work and goodness, they could “share in and contribute to its blessings.” The United States is a nation of immigrants and should always seek ways to build bridges rather than walls. As Khan stated, “We cannot solve our problems by building walls, sowing division. We are stronger together.” Indeed, a culture of bias and bigotry towards immigrants hurts all of us.

Questions for Discussion:

  • How does Khizr Khan’s experience as an immigrant inform his perspective on U.S. democracy?
  • How are the different points of view about immigrants and immigration being discussed during this presidential election?
  • How is the Khan family’s experience similar to or different from the experiences of your family or your friend’s families?
  • What do you already know about immigration and what do you want to know?