The Clinton campaign takes the cake for creative and often ingenious campaign strategies as well as public relations management. The Khizr Khan episode is one such creative genius that the strategists crafted to influence voters decisively in favor of Clinton. Only this time the strategy backfired.
Khizr Khan is the father of Humayun Mauzzam Khan, the 27-year-old US Army Captain and Purple Heart awardee who was killed while deployed in Iraq in 2004. In a dream moment for the Clinton campaign, Khizr Khan pulled out a copy of the US constitution from his breast pocket and taunted Donald Trump to read it – an act that mesmerized viewers into a speechless awe. It will probably be remembered in the annals of election conventions in the US for a long time to come – for multiple reasons.
As if on a cue, the cable networks, radio and print media went berserk and gushed at the powerful impact Khizr had created. Clinton’s campaign had pulled off a major coup and seemed to have almost stalled Trump’s campaign on its tracks.
If Team Clinton thought it had executed a coup de main, the revelations on Khizr Khan that followed held nasty surprise. It boomeranged and the campaign appeared to nosedive. Clinton quickly lost an 8 percentage point lead over Trump after the convention, to just a 3-point lead per the much respected Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll published on Friday, August 5th 2016. Surprisingly, at this late stage in the campaign cycle, Clinton has failed to establish a clear lead over Trump.
That bore testimony of a highly and evenly polarized electorate. But as the media uncovered more about Khizr Khan’s background, the unease amongst many Americans only grew and escalated the war of words between the two campaigns.
First, Khizr Khan’s past intellectual leanings were discomforting. His published writings showed his strong support for Islamic Law or Sharia, an anathema for Americans. Through his writings, he claimed the supremacy of Sharia and asserted that it was above the constitution or the law of the land since it was God given.
Secondly Khizr Khan seemed to have been inspired by Said Ramadan of the Muslim Brotherhood fame. Many are familiar with the violent past of the brotherhood. There have been calls by the US Congress to designate it as a terrorist organization. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates too have made similar demands. Khizr’s purported connections to the Muslim Brotherhood has not helped Clinton in anyway.
Thirdly, Khizr seemed to have connections to religious extremist elements in Pakistan, specifically to Allah K Brohi. Brohi, who was a former Minister and advisor to Gen Zia ul Haq, the former dictator of Pakistan, had helped create hundreds of madrassas and restore Sharia punishments in that country.
Fourthly, in a subsequent interview with a Pakistani TV network Khan’s praise for the sacrifices of the Pakistani soldiers – who have often been at loggerheads with US forces in Afghanistan- has only reinforced this hardline image of Khan as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Lastly, came the exposé in some sections of the media that the Clinton campaign had transferred $375,000 – no small amount – to Khan in early August, although the quid pro quo was not a surprise.
The Khan episode had its share of critical and adverse consequences, albeit unintended. Many Americans, particularly veterans, have been angered that the supreme sacrifice of a Purple Heart soldier was being politicized and have protested it.
Khan, in the meantime, had taken full advantage of his new found but short-lived popularity on prime time television. He appeared in almost every major cable network channel to denounce Trump. But sensing the unease his writings on Sharia had generated among Americans, he quickly made a ‘U’ turn. In the AC 360 show on CNN when asked about his writings on Sharia he said there was ‘no such thing as Sharia’.
Khan went on further to say that the Sharia was nothing but a hodge-podge of British, French and Portuguese laws and could never be implemented in the US. His about turn was complete. But the damage had already been done and there was no winning back the confidence of many Americans – particularly the baby-boomers and large sections of the veterans.
Notwithstanding his denials, Khan’s resume had all the career highlights of a Muslim with strong and yet secret ties to radical Islam. In fact, his denials had only accentuated the problem for Clinton. It is true that none of the intelligence agencies have publicly come out with a possible connection between Khan and the brotherhood or radical Islam. But the Trump campaign has exploited this to the full. Khizr Khan has since refused to meet with the television networks or the media.
The ground reality is that the campaigns face a nervous and a highly polarized America. This nervousness has spawned irrational fears all over. The Clinton campaign is obviously nervous about its inability to prevail over Trump as elections get closer. Hence we are witness to a serving President – a first ever – who is actively on the campaign circuit. While many may see this as inappropriate and a minor breach of ‘Presidential’ conduct at best, it has largely been ignored it in the distractions of a vituperative drama of a highly spirited election.
The Trump campaign on the other hand has been unable to fully exploit Clinton’s gaffes and missteps to its advantage. Americans have been equally appalled by some of his blunt and uninformed remarks – ranging from nukes to NATO.
The Khizr Khan fiasco has some important lessons for both the campaigns. Europe, smarting under repeated terror attacks from radical Islam, has created a society that is ultra-allergic and ultra-sensitive to anything Islam.
Europeans in general and France in particular have been known for the liberal traditions and until recently, had preached to the world the virtues of immigrants – specially Muslims immigrant in creating a diverse society. For decades they have counseled third world countries like India and others about the wisdom and the need to absorb and coexist with Muslim immigrants.
But almost overnight, this allergen of Islamic terror, has drained Europe of any pretense to this liberal embrace of immigrants, especially Muslims. It has resulted in multiple optics –“Brexit”, “Nationalism” and rise of “Right wing” in Germany etc. But the transformation has been quick and complete and there will be no going back. Europe ain’t liberal anymore and the Americans aren’t far behind.
The US has joined the party late and is now fermenting. Clinton’s cynical deploy of Khizr Khan to gain votes oblivious of this fermenting undercurrent has backfired on her and will continue to hurt. A nervous America can be unpredictable and the even polarization will only make the race to the White House all the more difficult.