The Sacrifice of Humayun Khan

Abraham and Ishmael; Brooklyn Museum
When Khizr Khan, father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in July to contest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, he invoked the language of sacrifice to upbraid the Republican candidate:

"Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Trump’s spluttered response was shallow: "Did Hillary's script writers write it? I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard."

Hillary Clinton’s own comment pulled the focus on sacrifice back to those who died in war: "this is a time to honor the sacrifice of Captain Khan and all the fallen. Captain Khan and his family represent the best of America, and we salute them."

The noise surrounding the contest over the US presidency itself is such that some important issues in this exchange may get lost. One is just what “sacrifice” is. Mr Trump certainly misses the mark, but it is not hard to see how he slid into his claim; he identified his own hard work as “sacrifice" because he made certain choices, giving up certain goods or goals for the sake of others. This is part of a typical modern and metaphorical "sacrifice," but Trump's attempt to climb the altar falls short at the step where Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan - and their son Captain Humayun Khan - stand. Mr Trump may have given up certain things for the sake of other things, but it is no sacrifice merely to make choices, or even to exercise discipline. Going to the gym is not sacrifice, and neither is single-minded aggrandizement. The Khans gained the higher ground at a cost.

The idea of “sacrifice” itself deserves to be interrogated further, though. The nobility exhibited by the Khan parents and the bravery shown by the son may exemplify what it means in modern terms, but ironically this is not quite what Islam otherwise means by sacrifice, nor was it originally what Christianity or Judaism meant.

Among these traditions Muslims are unique in actually still sacrificing literally, on Eid al-Adha, slaughtering an animal and distributing the meat, a third going to the poor and the other two-thirds being retained or shared with family and friends. This ritual has something of the character of gift and divine service, but does not carry redemptive overtones as Christianity might expect of sacrifice; a degree of altruism is also involved in Eid al-Adha, but the cow or camel bears the greatest burden, rather the family itself.

Yet the Muslim holiday, to be celebrated in a few weeks from the time of writing, does refer to a story more like that of Khizr, Ghazala, and Humayun Khan; it commemorates Abraham’s not-quite sacrifice of his son (in Islam the almost-victim was Ishmael, not Isaac). With that story in mind, one can actually hear Khizr Khan presenting himself and his son as a modern Abraham and Ishmael to the DNC; the father offered his son in obedience to a higher power, but here no angel stayed his hand. Khizr, not Humayun Khan, made the sacrifice.

This is slightly different from the usual Christian or post-Christian western view of how sacrifice works. Clinton’s further comment, wherein the fallen is the sacrificer as well as the offering - just as Jesus, the sacrifice par excellence, is both priest and victim - is more typical of the "deadly altruism" that has come define sacrifice in most modern western use. Here Humayun Khan offers himself.

Mrs Clinton’s more familiar figuring of Humayun Khan’s death allows him agency at least; his sacrifice is his own choice, whether made rightly or not. For all its dignity, Khizr Khan’s view of sacrifice is one in which the father, Abrahamically, gives the son to God. For many Christians, ironically, this view may also be resonant with a popular if pernicious quasi-trinitarian dynamic in which the Father offers up or demands the life of the Son, and where divine life seems more like domestic violence than cosmic love.

So there are at least two kinds of sacrificial logic, even in this one story, not counting Trump's; despite claims by some social theorists and theologians that all sacrifice has one origin and meaning, in reality sacrifice is a complex field of thought and practice, not just one idea. Ancient sacrificers, like modern Muslims at Eid, were not typically focussed on human victims, scapegoats, or redemption. Yet both these recent uses of sacrificial image and story reflect a modern tendency for sacrifice to have become a way of talking not about gift, celebration, and sharing, but about violence and voluntary suffering.

What do we learn of the meaning of Captain Khan’s death by this language? Both Khan's and Clinton's statements deserve scrutiny, because both in fact use the metaphor of sacrifice to interpret or even to justify violent death and war - and a problematic war at that.

Both sacrificial reflections name a sacrifice, but only imply a God. The God to whom Humayun Khan's life was offered is of course not the one worshipped by either religious tradition to which the speakers adhere, but is the nation and its policies. The fine line between the two here is sobering. In modern times, Christians have often allowed or encouraged the confusion of civil and divine orders in sacralizing war, or at least the tragedy of death in war, in terms that - to be as sympathetic as possible - allow meaning to be sought in the midst of violent death and tragic loss. Captain Khan’s death however has become not merely a matter of personal bravery to recall as a moral example, but an offering placed before the specific altar of the Iraq War, as much as of the US Constitution.

By figuring Captain Khan’s death thus, the speakers at the Democratic Convention have demanded a high price of the American people too. One of the few positive things one could say about Mr Trump’s campaign—and it is a struggle to find many—is that at least on some days he has questioned US foreign policy in the Middle East, when the Democratic candidate has not. The incoherence of Trump's statements, among other things, prevents them from being a serious critique, but such is still necessary. A war whose causes and effects are deeply questionable - even for those who accept the possibility of a just war - a war whose scandalous origins have recently led to a scathing and important analysis in Britain through the Chilcot inquiry, requires fearless scrutiny rather than have its ugliness covered over with words of sacrifice.

Here however the system has failed Americans in general. But it may have failed Humayun Khan and other Americans who have borne the cost of the Iraq War for the US (not to mention Iraqis themselves groaning under the weight of civil war and the repellent rule of ISIS) more specifically. Through this sacrificial rhetoric, Humayun Khan has been offered to the cause of multiculturalism and liberal democracy - or is that multiculturalism and democracy have themselves been drafted for the war? Did Captain Khan, a brave man who loved his country, die to prove that Muslims and migrants can sacrifice to the same false gods too? His memory and his sacrifice may still require a different kind of service; an increasingly diverse American nation may still need learn to exist with itself, as Khizr Khan scathingly demonstrated to Donald Trump; but however diverse it may become, the USA also needs to learn how to exist with others and to make its truest offerings at the altar of peace.


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking piece. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Provocative (and rightly so) especially the final paragraph. Thank you

  3. Powerful, intelligent, sane. Thank you.


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