In his talk, Khan tackled the “very complex notion” of identity, making fine, but perhaps imperceptible, semantic distinctions. He addressed the fundamental distinction between the terms “Muslim-American” and “American-Muslim,” which prompt the question: “How do we determine who we are first?” Before devolving wholly into such questions, Khan reintegrated politics into the discussion, maintaining that as a result of 9/11, the reconstruction of Muslim identity in the United States is incredibly politicized. Next, using September 11th as a reference point, Khan traced the evolution of American-Muslim identity. Prior to 2001, the “Muslim” in “American-Muslim” had been the primary cause for concern—communities attempted to define themselves to the greater Muslim world as “Muslim, not like those other Americans.” After 2001, however, it was the “American” in “American Muslim” that had to be defended—the new mantra became: “We are no different than those other Americans. We are the same.”
As Khan discussed the complications of maintaining an American-Muslim identity, which he believes is “not a very stable concept yet,” stories of his own difficulties with identity emerged. After noting his propensity to think in English and affinity for tea and cricket, Khan questioned, “Am I an Englishman? Am I an Indian?” Yet his story was more complicated still—clearly the product of an American academic culture, Khan’s core beliefs have often been at odds with those of other American-Muslims. He recalled a fundraiser at which he spoke, where he commented that his greatest desire was to see his daughter attend Harvard Law School and become a justice on the Supreme Court. He told his audience that he intended to help his daughter in every way possible, even if it meant disrupting another person’s pursuit of heaven. Unbeknownst to Khan, this comment was incredibly controversial and halved the expected donations as a result of the event. Khan related a second story about a graduate student, who, upon hearing that his teacher did not believe in predestination, claimed that Khan was not a true theological Muslim. “I am predestined to not believe in predestination,” Khan had remarked. “But [my student] had no sense of humor,” he told us.
Not to be reduced to a single, static identity, Khan also spoke of his divergence from the American political left. He lambasted reporters who asked him constantly for his views on homosexuality and hoped that he would “say something that is politically incorrect.” He admitted that, according to his belief and reading of the Koran, it would be “impossible for [him] to say that [homosexuality is] not a sin.” He referred to such questions as “constraints” and acknowledged that he “cannot be a liberal” if views on homosexuality are the litmus test. Others of Khan’s comments seemed also at odds with liberal (and conservative) principles. He argued that translations of the Koran meant to please other religions by avoiding offensive language could be the beginnings of an “identity crisis” in Islam.
Khan later examined the recent evolution of Muslim political engagement in the United States. “The American-Muslim community has been so superficial in its political engagement,” Khan stated, “that it has not figured out who they are, what they stand for.” Beginning with the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, the American-Muslim community has had significant debate about whether to even participate in American politics and later, whether to vote as a bloc. Khan claimed that American-Muslims are now beginning to invest in American politics. Yet according to Khan, their views are difficult to characterize—they are “socially conservative and politically liberal” and thus “don’t fit into a box.” He further argued that the next step for American-Muslims is to determine what motivates them most politically—the domestic or the international, the secular or the religious.
Khan interspersed the heavy social commentary with targeted bursts of levity however, including jokes about France and President Obama. Remarking on a recent visit to France, Khan said, “When I arrived, I discovered it was the only place on earth that hated America and Islam equally!” From this experience, he deduced that “the best way to produce American-Muslims is to send people to Paris.” Commenting on Muslim political influence in the United States, Khan joked, “We have a president—who is secretly Muslim. I’m sure you all know that.” By the conclusion of the event, Khan could not help but reaffirm his love for the United States, noting: “We got rid of one Hussein, but we elected another one—this is a great country.”