Khizr Khan has been busy. Following his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and ensuing rise to prominence, he has made over 150 appearances, normally speaking out against President Donald Trump and the current state of politics in his adopted home, the United States. “This is all pro bono! I am running out of savings,” Khan jokes. Still, Khan would not have it any other way, and feels a need to continue speaking out. “It is important,” he told The Gate, “it is urgent.” At each event and on each trip, Khan said he notices a common sentiment: “so much of the country is concerned about the direction of the administration, the action that America is taking.”
Khan is a Harvard-educated lawyer and lover of the US Constitution. On July 28, 2016, Khan addressed the Democratic National Convention, speaking about his son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan, a Purple Heart recipient, killed in action in Iraq in 2004. Standing on stage with his wife, Ghazala Khan, his speech gained international attention. “We are honored to stand here as the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country,” Khan said at the start of his address. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan said of then-candidate Trump, as a larger-than-life photo of his son was projected on the massive DNC screen. Khan pulled a pocket-sized Constitution from his jacket, speaking directly to Trump: “Let me ask you, have you even read the US Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
The reaction to Khan’s speech was immense. The Washington Post said Khan waving his copy of the Constitution would be the “most remembered” aspect of the convention, even surpassing the image of Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination, becoming the first female candidate to receive the presidential nomination of a major party. The US Constitution itself became the second top-ranking bestseller on Amazon following Khan’s speech. The response was in part a reaction to Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala following the moving address, in which Trump suggested Ghazala was not allowed to speak, and questioned whether Khan’s words were his own, or prepared by a speechwriter. The Khans and the Clinton campaign refuted both claims.
The speech moved many. “I wish I could show you the notes that I get now when I’m sitting on an airplane,” Khan said, “somebody will pass by and hand me a wrinkled note.” Khan has kept “each and every note, card, and letter” he and his wife have received, and he said they are “so very important” to him. “Generally, the notes say the same thing: ‘Thank you for speaking on our behalf, we are so proud to be your fellow American,’” Khan explains. One recent encounter especially moved him, when an active-duty service member told him he was proud to live in the same country as Khan. “If you came to our home, I would show you on the dining table, there are thousands of notes and cards and letters that have come in from all over the country and the world,” Khan said, sounding somewhat awed by the response. “People have said that they have always known America is good, but thank you for reminding us,” Khan confessed, “so that’s what I will continue to do.”
Fourteen months after his DNC speech, Khan is still quick to criticize Trump. “Let me be a little below my dignity and below my level of conversation,” Khan prefaced his discussion of Trump, tying the president’s recent comments to his father, Fred Trump, who was reportedly arrested at a KKK event. “The comments of Donald Trump...reflect the pedigree of his father,” Khan said.
Khan, who is originally from Pakistan, has “lived under two martial laws without any civil liberties, without any civil rights, at the wishes and whims of the dictators.” This background shaped his view of Trump, who he believes holds “authoritarian traits.” “The very first thing...an authoritarian does is malign the media,” Khan said. The second step of an authoritarian leader, Khan claims, is to “malign the courts, the judicial system...this is a very old tactic of dictators and exactly the same thing is now taking place.”
Next, Khan said, the “third and equally important method” is to cause “fear in the hearts of the peacefully living population.” “Sometimes it is fear of militia, sometimes it is fear of police, sometimes it is fear in the hearts of immigrants,” he added. He has seen Trump “maligning the judiciary, our honorable judiciary, maligning the honorable members of the media ...multiple times.”
Trump’s attitude towards the judiciary seems to strike Khan, a lawyer, as particularly concerning. “Impartiality is being questioned,” he said, “and when it infiltrates among ordinary citizens then it takes a while to recover from the damage.”
Khan finds the president’s response to the violent rallies and protests that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, particularly upsetting. Khan lives in Charlottesville, and for him, the racial unrest of the events hits close to home. “Almost all of America has seen them on television, but I have seen them with my own eyes, and I rolled the window down and I've heard with my own ears when they were chanting,” he said of the groups of white supremacist marchers who carried torches through his hometown while shouting racial slurs. “I know there is an element of racism in American society,” Khan reflects, but “the extent of it was a shock.”
“It's a minority, it's a very small minority in America, but they were so vocal that day, it was discouraging. And then to hear our chief executive, our president, try to support them, or some of them, was just really discouraging,” Khan reflected. In particular, Khan was upset to see one of the participants carrying a Nazi flag. “My children, my sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters, fought to defeat Nazis and Nazism and whatever it stands for.”
Khan said that well-wishers advised him and his family to stay inside during the protests and violence. “I stayed put,” he said, expressing shock “to feel that way in the United States, in America, in my country, to feel scared.” Khan is a “firm believer” in freedom of speech, but argues that those involved in the violence in Charlottesville “did not come there to express their point of view, which would have been fine, but they came there to create a fear.” “Freedom of speech doesn't mean that by your speech you you scare the rest of the community,” he argued.
Despite the incidents in Charlottesville and similar unrest around the country following Trump’s election, Khan shows a remarkable confidence in the American voters. In Charlottesville, he said, “people were upset, the expressions I saw on their faces were expressions of fear, of concern, that this was taking place on the streets of the United States and especially on the campus of a university.”
“Most of America does not approve that racism,” he argues, convinced that the goodness of the country will not allow prejudice to win. The main comment Khan says he gets from Trump supporters he speaks to on the road is “we did not vote for this,” and that they “were hoping that after a few months of this tumultuous time we would have direction to move forward, but we have not, we are still fumbling.”
“I am confident, because I have stood in front of communities in America and I have seen the goodness in their hearts and in their eyes,” Khan said. “Regardless of all this clown show that is taking place in the White House, the rest of the world still looks up to America for guidance, for leadership, our rule of law, our freedom of speech, our equal protection, our dignity of all, equal dignity of all people is still a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I am witness to that,” Khan pronounced. “I am witness to how the rest of the nations read our constitution, how they get inspired, their leaders get inspired.” While he believes “the traits of this president are authoritarian traits,” Khan said he believes “the nation will never accept that...will never heed to that authoritarian system.”
Khan does not think Trump acts in ways that are truly American, including the president’s recent decision to turn back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a choice he calls “cruel” and “un-American.” “We are a country of decency, of acceptance,” he said. “I wish to ask Donald Trump how his family got here. When did they get here? We are all immigrants. His ship may have come earlier than my ship, but we are all immigrants.”
Khan said he does not think the United States has a comprehensive immigration policy, but rather just a collection of unconnected laws. “Not having an immigration policy does not give the president a carte blanche to discriminate, to declare these law abiding, contributing human beings, eight hundred thousand of them, that they ought to be deported,” he argued. “They don’t know where to go. They have not seen any other place. This is their home.”
Khan urges Congress to “look to the north, to Canada” for inspiration in passing immigration policy. “Looking at the demographics of our country, of our society, we need more sensible immigration and there is no one better suited than the members that are affected by DACA,” Khan said. They “should be properly integrated into society so they continue to contribute.”
Having supported both Democratic and Republican candidates, Khan said he is looking for someone who is representative of “our constitutional values enshrined in our Bill of Rights, in our history,” in 2020. “I am looking for somebody that rejects foreign infiltration and illegal interference,” he added, “it has been proven time after time directly and indirectly that Russia has interfered with our election by money, electronically interfering. The effects are being felt even today.”
If he could address the country again, like he did at the DNC, Khan says his message would be one of hope. “This nation has seen turbulent times many a time before and we have come through,” he reflected, “we have to come through to move forward, not be pulled back. It’s momentary.” Today is a “dark bump in our history,” and people should “remain faithful to [their] values.” “Don’t let those values go, because the rest of the world looks up to America even today, even though they laugh at this president.” America, he said, is still respected “for its goodness, for its leadership, for its history, and for the hope it provides for the rest of the world.”
Khan has faith that American values will prevail thanks to young people, whom he calls his “source of strength.” “They’re my hope, they’re the custodians of the goodness of America of the strength of America, of the values of America, of the Constitution of America,” Khan said of students he has seen and met around the country. “They must remain positive, they must remain tolerant of difference in opinion. They must remain peaceful to move us forward, that is where the hope is,” Khan stated. “I have faith because I have seen it, I have shaken their hands, I have stood among these students. They're the ones that are going to carry the flag.”
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Dylan Wells is a third-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at ABC News' Washington, D.C. bureau as a Political Unit Fellow. Previously, she interned twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. On campus, Dylan serves on the boards of TEDxUChicago and Chicago Strategies. Last year she served as The Gate's Elections Editor, and was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.