Humayun Khan was a devoted patriot. But if he wasn't a devout Muslim, he might not have become a hero.
- By Zachary D. KaufmanZachary D. Kaufman, J.D., Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Visiting Fellow at both Yale Law School and Yale University's Genocide Studies Program. He is the author of United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice: Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Since July 28, when they first appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention, Capt. Humayun Khan’s parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, have tried to explain for the American public their son’s service and sacrifice to his country. On June 8, 2004, the 27-year-old Capt. Khan died in the line of duty in Iraq when he ordered his subordinates to stand back while he inspected a suspicious vehicle that then exploded, taking his life as he sheltered his compatriots. It was an act of heroism for which the Army posthumously awarded him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Capt. Khan’s parents have attributed their son’s sacrifice to his sense of duty, patriotism, and love of the United States — an explanation that has doubled as an eloquent riposte to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s repeated insults about the loyalty and trustworthiness of Muslim Americans.
But there’s another possible motivation for their son’s heroism that bears examination — not least because it serves as the most direct possible rebuttal to Trump. The selfless service of Capt. Khan, who was reportedly a devout Muslim, may also have been directly inspired by his faith. There’s good reason to believe that Islam was an essential, rather than incidental, aspect of his heroism.
A prevailing recent narrative about Islam in the United States and abroad is that it is a “religion of violence.” Extremist Muslims have inarguably been responsible for perpetrating many horrific mass killings over the past two decades. And terrorists have exploited certain Quranic verses to try to justify their heinous crimes. Since the 9/11 attacks, Islamophobia has skyrocketed in the United States and around the world. More recent assaults — in the United States, France, India, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, throughout the Middle East, and elsewhere — have helped reinforce such stereotypes. The resulting racism and xenophobia have bled into politics and policy. One need only consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims, at least temporarily, from immigrating to the United States.
But history demonstrates that Islamic teaching and practice offer their adherents laudable resources to encourage extraordinary selflessness, empathy, and courage. When odious crimes against humanity have taken place, Muslims have often drawn on their faith to rescue people of other religions, including Christians and Jews.
Consider Abd el-Kader, a devout Muslim leader who saved thousands of Christians in Damascus in 1860 from marauding murderers. He explained his conduct as following an Islamic duty to protect innocents; indeed, the Quran states that “to save a life would be as great a virtue as to save all of mankind.” Kader’s efforts were so admired that Abraham Lincoln sent him a gift of Colt pistols and a town in Iowa was named after him. The New York Times wrote at the time that Kader “deserves to be ranked among the foremost of the few great men of the [19th] century.”
Although some Muslims, such as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, conspired with Nazis during the Holocaust, other Muslims in Albania, Bosnia, Germany, the former Soviet Union, and Turkey, in fact, saved Jews. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has officially recognized more than 70 Muslims as “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during that genocide. For example, in Albania (Europe’s only Muslim-majority country at the time), almost all of the approximately 200 indigenous Jews and 1,800 Jewish refugees survived. An Albanian code of honor, “besa,” compelled all residents to safeguard those in need. This code was based on Islamic tenets characterizing as blessed conduct the saving of a life. The son of an Albanian man recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” explained that his father sheltered four Jewish families because as “devout Muslims we extended our protection and humanism to the Jews. Why? Besa, friendship and the holy Koran.” Even Albert Einstein benefited from Albanian assistance in his emigration from Europe to the United States.
Some Muslims heroically rescued Tutsis — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and, as in Damascus and Albania, attributed such conduct to their religious principles. Muslims hid Tutsis in, among other places, their mosques, which proved much safer than churches. Yahya Msengiyuma, for one, saved as many as 50 Tutsis. Far from the way the term has typically been used and understood since 9/11, “jihad,” or holy struggle, has been employed by some Muslim leaders in Rwanda to refer to “our war against ignorance between Hutu and Tutsi. It is our struggle to heal.” In the years immediately following the genocide, thousands of appreciative Rwandans converted to Islam, doubling the number of such religious adherents in the country. “If it weren’t for the Muslims, my whole family would be dead,” said Aisha Uwimbabazi, one such grateful convert.
The list of Muslim heroes goes on and on. Just this past December, al-Shabab militants, who have a history of killing non-Muslims, stormed a bus in Kenya. When ordered to separate by religion, the Muslim passengers refused, gave the Christian women hijabs to wear, and helped others hide behind luggage. The gunmen left; the mass killing of Christians was thwarted. A Kenyan cabinet secretary praised the Muslim passengers for their display of religious unity, saying, “This is a very good message from my brothers and sisters from the Muslim community.” And last month, in a restaurant in Bangladesh, Faraz Hossain, a Bangladeshi Muslim studying at Emory University, was among the casualties when armed militants invaded. Seeking to kill foreigners, the militants had given Hossain the opportunity to leave unharmed. He refused to abandon his two female friends who were clad in Western attire and who identified themselves as hailing from India and the United States.
These Muslim men and women all sought to protect others at great risk to themselves, their families, and their communities — not in spite of, but often inspired by their faith. At a time when Western leaders seek to enlist Muslims in their fight against violent extremists, a campaign that builds momentum around this protective instinct in Islam would support ongoing efforts of “moderate Muslims” to condemn and combat the radicals in their midst.
The significant yet underappreciated and seldom celebrated role of Muslims as rescuers during conflicts, including genocide and other mass atrocities, should remind us that Muslims, like other religious groups, are not homogenous. Similarly, the Quran, like other religious texts, can be interpreted in multiple ways — sometimes for ill, but often also for good. Human actions are individual choices, and heroes may exist even in groups that are vilified.
Policymakers, if they hope to be effective, must understand that people are more complicated than the stereotypes about the groups to which they belong. Indeed, if anything, officials ought to go out of their way to highlight instances of courageous conduct by devout Muslims. That would not only provide a more complete record of history; it could also motivate other individuals — including, but not limited to, their religious compatriots — to follow the example set in times of crisis by these heroic Muslims.
Capt. Khan bravely made the ultimate sacrifice for the United States. In doing so, he joined a long line of Muslims who have selflessly sought to save others. Besides reading the U.S. Constitution, as Khizr Khan recommended, Trump would do well to read more history about Islam’s role in the country, and world, he hopes to lead.
Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images