Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense Departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been writing letters to my nephew, John, who is named for me. Mostly, they are just observations about life – sometimes something more specific. This is the latest installment, inspired by some ugly commentary I saw on social media questioning Muslims’ service and loyalty to the nation.
It’s been too long since I’ve written you. I apologize for that. I wish I had a good excuse, but I don’t. Enough said. I will try harder to communicate.
I’m prompted to write you now about Ilhan Omar. She was elected to Congress last year in the 5th District of Minnesota. She is an immigrant from Somalia, a Muslim, a vocal advocate of the rights of Muslims, and an outspoken critic of President Trump.
During a speech to CAIR, a civil-rights organization that focuses on the Muslim minority, she referred to the 9/11 attacks in a way that caused right-wing commentators – and then the President himself – to distort her remarks as somehow dismissing that national tragedy.
One Fox News anchor openly questioned whether Omar was “an American first.” They all but labeled her – an American, a member of Congress – as a terrorist herself.
Trump weighed in by retweeting a video that juxtaposed Omar’s comment with footage of the Twin Towers collapsing. But the clip, like Omar’s original remarks, was taken out of context. Here is what she said:
“For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So, you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”
One could argue that Rep. Omar’s use of “some people” to describe the 9-11 hijackers was cavalier. Maybe it was. But her larger point was valid: those hijackers and the terrorist groups who survive them do not represent all Muslims, at home or abroad. And it’s just plain wrong – un-American, really – to hold in disdain an entire community of our fellow citizens for the evil act of a few who perverted their faith.
But in this environment of fear and ignorance and hatred, an incondite environment this President and his supporters gleefully encourage, it’s becoming acceptable to spew that hatred openly. In the past couple days alone, I’ve seen commentary online not only deriding Muslims as people, but also denying any contribution they made to our history.
A Muslim immigrant fought at Bunker Hill, and Muslims served the Union in the Civil War. American Muslims by the thousands filled the ranks of our armed forces in World Wars I and II. They bled alongside their Christian and Jewish battle buddies in Korea and Vietnam. And they sure as hell volunteered for duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and every other conflict after the towers fell.
Let me tell you about one of them.
It was Christmas, 2006. Fallujah, Iraq. I was there with Adm. Mike Mullen, my boss at the time and the Navy’s top officer. He wanted to visit with sailors and Marines who would not be spending the holidays with their families.
Mullen was particularly interested in seeing the field hospital, where he could check in on some of our wounded troops and express his gratitude for the skill and dedication of military doctors, nurses and caregivers.
The hospital was busy when we arrived. There had just been a firefight nearby, and the surgeons were trying desperately to save the life of an Iraqi insurgent who had been seriously wounded by our Marines.
We stayed out of the way, of course. We almost turned and left. It wouldn’t do to distract these doctors at a time like this. But in a very short time, the crisis had passed. The enemy fighter was out of danger, his life spared by American medical professionals.
One of those professionals was an immigrant from Pakistan, Dr. Saleem Khan. Khan, a Navy surgeon, emerged from the operating room weary, but satisfied. One of his sneakers squished when he walked, drenched as it was with blood. He left scarlet prints on the concrete floor. His shoulders slumped a little, but he was smiling ever so slightly.
He’d done his job.
Khan was on his fifth – yes, fifth – tour in Iraq at that point. He volunteered for each of them. He would go on to complete another three combat deployments, including one to Afghanistan, and would be awarded the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit for his battlefield performance.
I’ll never forget what he told me that day: “I don’t want anyone to ever say that, as an immigrant, I did not pay my dues.”
Every time I think about the bigotry against immigrants and especially Muslims these days, I think about Dr. Khan. And every time I think about Dr. Khan, I feel small – insignificant, really. I was born here, and I haven’t done half as much as he did to repay the country we both love.
Maybe it’s a question of distance. Maybe too few Americans have been exposed to men and women of the Muslim faith. Maybe it’s demographics, too. Muslims account for only about 1% of the American population, and less than 1% of all Americans serve in the military. Thus, there are but a few thousand Muslims in uniform at any given time.
This might help explain why you don’t see as many crescent moons on headstones in places like Arlington and other veterans’ cemeteries. But that doesn’t mean Muslims haven’t fought and died for our freedom. It doesn’t mean they aren’t Americans first. And it certainly doesn’t mean they haven’t paid their dues. As Rep. Omar noted, they’re still paying their dues … and then some.
The bickering over her speech reflects an ugly image we ought to be brave enough to face and an odious, arrogant fear of foreigners we ought to have long ago cast off. It’s not just about religion, son; at its core, it’s about citizenship and everything good citizenship entails in a democracy like ours.
Famed 19th century Christian pastor and abolitionist Theodore Parker said it best: “Democracy means not ‘I am as good as you are,’ but ‘you are as good as I am.’”
Seems to me that’s pretty much all the congresswoman was trying to say. It’s the same thing Abraham Lincoln said, and it’s the same damn thing said by Susan B. Anthony and Dr. King and Harvey Milk and so many other Americans over the years.
I’m not sure I understand why we wouldn’t all be saying it, too.
Till next time,
An earlier version of this commentary misidentified the branch of the military in which surgeon Saleem Khan served. He served in the US Navy’s medical corps.