Khzir Khan is a lawyer and the father of Captain Humayan Khan, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. He and his wife, Ghazala, entered the national spotlight when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in July and offered to lend Donald Trump his personal pocket Constitution. Since then, he has continued to speak out on behalf of Muslim-Americans and veteran families.
Mr. Khan visited Duke on April 20 to deliver the James P. Gorter Annual Lecture. Earlier that day, he sat down for an exclusive interview with DPR’s Zach Fuchs.
Khan: In December of 2015, Donald Trump as candidate made the most bigoted statement of his campaign, saying he would ban all Muslims, Hispanics will be thrown out, women are undeserving of equal respect, judges are partial—that stuff. A few days after that statement, a newspaper writer from New York named James King called me around lunchtime. We were sitting on the patio, Ghazala and I, when the call came and I answered. He asked me what my comments are. So I spoke and he took that statement and printed in an article. That is one element of us going to the Convention.
Then, after that statement, some family friends with small children would come to our home or we would go to some birthday party. They would ask or their children would ask, “Is this true? Will we be thrown out of here? But we are in school. Can we finish our elementary school or middle school?” And parents would whisper, “Please hearten them because they’re worried. At school, other children bully them, harass them and say you’ll be thrown out of here very soon when Trump becomes President.” So I would hearten them. I would hug them and tell them, “Please don’t worry. This is just a political statement. It’s not going to happen.” But small children—they’re worried. And the parents would then call that nothing has changed: they don’t do their homework; they don’t eat well, some of them said; they don’t want to go to school; they cry literally whenever we take them to school, saying that my friend was telling me that your parents will be taken away. So that was taking place at a personal level.
That article was published and the Convention noticed that article. As the father of Captain Humayan Khan, I spoke. So if you see that two-minute tribute to Captain Humayan Khan, most of the words are mine, and [Hillary Clinton] acknowledges that. So they prepare a tribute. They sent me the link. They said, “We are going to be publishing this tribute. Do you agree?” I read it. Which father or mother would refuse? So we said yes, that’s fine. They published it. It was liked very much. That is what made them decide to make that tribute part of the Convention. So when they decided to do that, because they were inviting other Gold Star families as well, they said Captain Humayan Khan will be paid tribute, so why don’t we invite his parents. That’s when the call came. “Would you like to come in and speak?” It would be such a short time. It’s only two minutes that’s given to each family to speak—immediately after the tribute, we could speak for two minutes. So we said to let us check with our other children. Immediately, I called our other two sons, our family members, and our well-wishers asking should we go. They said, “No. Don’t go. You will be disrespected, violated, subjected to the political attacks, because you’re stepping into the limelight. It’s not like it’s a private conversation. And you don’t need that in your life. It doesn’t affect us directly. We are all grown and settled and all.” Now here are these children—these questions, their concerns—and here we are being told don’t do that. We sat for two days. Ghazala and I continued to talk back and forth. What should we tell them? What should we tell them? Finally, we decided that we would go. The way we resolved it was, “What would Captain Humayan Khan do?” If he was standing here and we asked him, what he would do? He would tell us to speak on behalf of these children because he was such, he was—we didn’t make him, we didn’t train him. It was his academic institution that taught him service to others, his peers, his training, and all that. But under those values, he would definitely say you should speak. So that is what made us to decide to go.
So I called them and told them that we would come and speak. And they said the same tribute will be played at the convention and you will speak after that for two minutes. I sat down to write what I would say and I’ve never done that, none of us have done that. I begin to write, “Your speech has done this, your bigoted statement has done this, and has touched and disturbed our children and all.” It would be ten pages, 12 pages of grievances. And Ghazala would sit at the table and I would read it to her. It would be 12 minutes, 18 minutes, twenty minutes. She would say, “Look! They’re going to turn your speaker off, turn the lights off if you continue to speak.” So we narrowed it down to 260 words. It is a protocol of the Conventions that anyone that wishes to speak submit their words or outline to the Convention committee. It’s a protocol, it’s nothing they did just for us. So we submitted and they said it really requires no edits. Just make sure that it doesn’t go more than 260 words.
We go to the Convention and the original words in the speech that I had written were, “You have not read the Constitution of the United States. If you read the Constitution of the United States, look for the words ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equal Protection.’” What I was meaning to say was that there is rule of law in this country and you cannot be beyond rule of law in making these statements. That was the hint that I was trying to utter. So we come out of the room and I’m checking my pockets for keys because they told us don’t bring keys, coins, and all of that. And I notice a bulge in my pocket. I keep a copy of the Constitution in my pocket. The story why we do that—that’s been going on since 2005 after the passing of Humayan. Whenever the cadets would come to pay tribute, to offer condolences to our home, I would feel bad that they were going empty-handed. I should give them something. I couldn’t afford a more expensive gift. I’m a lawyer. I knew that there is a pocket constitution on the American Bar Association’s website, so I ordered 100 copies of it. We kept a stack of them at home so every time we would give them a copy—“learn it, what is in it”—with that kind of comment. So I had a copy of it in my pocket.
I asked Ghazala. I said, “Should I pull it out?” She said, “No, you cannot. You should not because that is not the permission that you have.” She said when we get to the Convention, we will ask them. We get to the Convention, through security, and in the green room. The green room is set up under the stage with the flood lights and lots of noise from outside so that our ears and our eyes are used to the noise because when you appear at the stage, ordinary people don’t appear with that kind of concert-type noise and lights. People get confused and they don’t know where to look. So for that purpose, they give them two minutes to stand under the flood lights so that your eyes are familiar, the noise is familiar, and you’re focused on your speech. We were given two minutes and I asked the producer standing next to me that I want to bring out the Constitution when I said, “Have you read the Constitution of the United States?” The producer was standing and he came very close to me here. He was wearing eyeglasses and I could see his eyes totally welled when I said I will pull out this. He said, “Mr. Khan, are you sure you want to do this?” I said yes. “Are you sure? That will be a very, very significant moment in this Convention. Do that.”
Simultaneously, I had asked Ghazala to say something. We’ll go together. Once we get to the stage, you’ll go forward. Say “thank you for inviting us. We’re honored. And my husband will speak on our behalf.” She said, “No, I will not be able to utter a word. And you know that.” I know that for the last ten years or so, she has not been able to go into the room that is dedicated to Captain Humayan Khan. His picture, his uniform, his medals, books—we have a corner in a room that is dedicated to him. And she has not able to go there. So she said, “You know that his picture will be in the background. I will not be able to open my mouth. Otherwise, I’ll just fall apart.” People that are familiar with that recognize it. If you see that speech, she’s not only standing but she’s holding the podium because that’s what we discussed. I said, “Hold the podium. Don’t fall off or don’t faint. Don’t show weakness. This is the time to show strength. So hold on to the podium. Don’t let it go. And I will speak.” And she said okay. So you can tell from her expression, from her red face that the blood pressure was high. I got concerned about her. As soon as we came down, I told two of the staff that was standing to help to carry her, give her support. It took her about 15-20 minutes to recover from that moment. So we went and we spoke and here we are.
DPR: Were you expecting that moment and your unscripted line, “I’ll gladly lend you my copy,” to become as viral as it did?
Khan: [Laughs]. No, no, not at all. This is what we were expecting: we will utter the words, we will express our concern, we will wave, and just come back home and go to coffee shops and sit with kids and whatever we want to do. So we came back from the Convention. “Wow, wonderful speech, very good speech.” Thank you. They were being generous. We came to our room and went to bed. We were tired and it was late.
Ghazala has a habit of waking up very early, so she woke up at six. She turned the television on and there we were! Every station. She said, “Oh my god!” She goes to CNN and there we were. Go to MSNBC, there we were. She went to a local station and there we were. She said, “Something has happened. They’re showing our picture and our speech on every station.” I woke up and I said listen. So we listened.
DPR: When nominee Trump was criticizing you and your wife and tweeting you, what was that experience like then? And when you reflect on that now that he is President, what do you think of that episode?
Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same – Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2016
Khan: Then it was that. Each political position—these are not fake things. These are not made up things. These positions, ranks, offices have certain dignity that come with them. Certain acceptance of criticism that comes with it. Certain offices have some criticism that comes with it. And one should be prepared to receive criticism. So when we received those tweet and all of that, we said wait a minute. We’re not world personalities. We’re just ordinary citizens that got up there like others. Even today, we consider ourselves as like the rest of the events that took place. People spoke and nobody said anything. Why us? And why especially Mrs. Khan? And not knowing anything that was going on in our lives about why she wasn’t speaking. Just imagine had he just said he didn’t want to pay attention to this. Things would be different. But he had to utter those words. He had to disrespect Mrs. Khan. The media kind of piled up on it. I said, “How dare you do this?” The generals wrote, the commanders wrote, Senator McCain, Mitch McConnell, Speaker Ryan—they all came in support of Mrs. Khan and I that that kind of criticism is unwarranted.
Now, as we continue to speak, the country remains divided. This was my hope and this remains my hope that this person will say, “Now that I have gotten to the highest, most respected office of this country, I am going to bring this country together.” Ordinary citizens would do that—would say, “I’m not going to yield and throw away all of my program that I wanted, but I will bring the country together.” And that divisiveness—we’ll speak loudly, we’ll speak on that a few times so that the division that remains in this country will begin to go away and we will unite. Of course we have different political opinions and programs and of course those must remain, but this division, this hatred, this un-American harassment of each other, of ethnic communities—that is uncalled for, that is un-American, that is against the values of the country, that is against the values of our Constitution. And here we are. Everything that he does is being challenged in the court of law.
Of course we have different political opinions and programs and of course those must remain, but this division, this hatred, this un-American harassment of each other, of ethnic communities—that is uncalled for, that is un-American, that is against the values of the country, that is against the values of our Constitution.
DPR: That leads to my last question, which I will ask in two parts. How would you assess the Trump presidency thus far? Could you do that first as a Muslim-American and discuss the travel ban? Then as a Gold Star family member, could you talk about Trump in his role as Commander-in-Chief?
Khan: This is how I see it, and both are kind of intertwined but I will give you separate answers. First, as a Muslim and as an immigrant to this country, immigrants bring amazing honor to this country. And this country honors them by adopting them, by accepting them as citizens. The honor they bring—30 percent of the Nobel Laureates of this country are immigrants. About 90 of the Fortune 500 companies’ founders are immigrants. If you add their children, that number doubles and triples. So immigrants, by their spirits, are involved to make life better. And their entire life, if you look at one immigrant at a time, is spent in that struggle, in that effort to make life better. So who wouldn’t want such people in the community? Safety and security of course [are important]. We are a country of laws and a country of keeping our laws enforced and safety, but no harassment. No creating divisions and alienating communities and all that. No, that is un-American. So that’s my personal answer.
As parents of Captain Humayan Khan, we have asked that question of him. When he was in the military, his answer was always the honorable answer. He said, “Look, I don’t concern myself with the politics. We are honorable members of the United States Armed Forces. We follow a chain of command. We don’t debate. We don’t discuss. We don’t argue. Whenever the orders come, we follow faithfully because that is the oath that we have taken.” I wish that the Commander-in-Chief would remember that as well. Instead of calling them “my generals, my army, my armed forces”—not at all. Those words are uttered by non-democratic leaders. These are America’s generals. This is America’s army. These are America’s soldiers. So hopefully the office-holder will learn the dignity of the office and maintain that dignity of the office.
As far as assessment is concerned, thus far, I can count the major moments that Trump announces, his major steps: Muslim Ban one, Muslim Ban number two—both are suspended in the court of law. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but momentarily rule of law has snubbed it. Building of the wall was another major announcement. The landowners are objecting. “We are not going to let you do this.” Without their consent, a president or his administration cannot come and say, “We want to build this. We’re going to take this land from you.” There is rule of law again. The eminent domain concept is decided by the courts. Can the government take away your land? So that is also headed to a court of law. Another major announcement was repeal and replace, and you know the fate of that, with what happened. Major of Congress is Republican and that got defeated because of these town hall meetings, because of these people speaking so loudly to their Congressmen, to their Senator, “We will not let that happen.” So how would you assess this?
So immigrants, by their spirits, are involved to make life better. And their entire life, if you look at one immigrant at a time, is spent in that struggle, in that effort to make life better. So who wouldn’t want such people in the community?
If these are the major announcements and major accomplishments thus far, and everything is suspended? The steps that he takes—he took another step a couple days ago declaring H1B visas suspended. A president cannot do that! Because the INA—the Immigration and Nationality Act—provisions are enacted by the Congress. You cannot overrule Congress. If an ordinary citizen like myself knows this much…Before I put my signature on that kind of foolishness and dignify that kind of foolishness with my signature, I would think momentarily, “What am I doing?” What is going to happen? Those laws were enacted. Can we change them? Yes. How? We go to Congress, we gather enough members in support, we propose legislation. They will pass it—not by executive orders. If an ordinary citizen, half-educated, can think of that minimally…a President cannot change an active law enacted by the Congress. The person sitting in that office, can’t he think of these things?
Assessing all of these steps…thoughtless, not prudent, political expediency by announcements—“I made promises during my election!” How does it benefit my country? How does it benefit my nation?
This interview is unabridged.