Khizr Khan is a legal consultant whose son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War. Captain Khan’s sacrifice became famous when his father spoke out against Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2016. The interview was conducted on February 15, 2017.
Harvard Political Review: How did growing up and studying in Pakistan influence your personal and professional development?
Khizr Khan: I grew up under three martial laws in Pakistan. I had firsthand experience when you could not speak, you could not say what you wanted to say, you could not come out on the street unless the government allowed you to. I have lived and I have experienced the lack of basic civil liberties, basic human dignities. It has made me appreciative of what we have in this country: the rights, the dignities, the Constitution, the legal system. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to say this is the [most] perfect country in the world—no, no, no. There is a whole lot that we can do to make it better, but under these values, I can see how it feels not having anything and then having all of this. It has made me a very grateful citizen.
HPR: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced when transitioning to the United States, and how would you compare those to the challenges faced by immigrants today?
KK: Economic challenges, financial challenges, settling down, raising a family, trying to move forward in my profession: these are typical challenges that all immigrants face. But that is the process of moving forward. I come from a humble background and am an ordinary citizen. We did everything ourselves, meaning that if we wanted to buy a new sofa, we had to earn and save. There wasn’t any fund or money coming from anywhere to help me. If I wanted to buy a car, I needed to save money to buy that car. I don’t call those hardships now that I look back. I always say that is the process of settling down, assimilating, becoming part of the society, moving forward, and having faith in your abilities. Most immigrants go through that process, and so did we.
HPR: In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, many efforts have been taken to mend the relationship between the Islamic world and the United States. How do you see this relationship developing, both in the short run and the long run?
KK: Well, this is what happened to us on September 11: we were awakened to see outside our home so many flowers and so many cards from people simply saying, “From one American to another American.” That’s all. Those were the gestures made so that we would not feel alienated, that we would not feel any different. When you live in such a blessed place, such a blessed country, that people are so generous and kind that they make sure without you asking that you may not feel excluded, it only makes us more grateful. It heartens us, and it gives us hope that that was the darkest moment in our history and that it is behind us. Thank God that we continue to take precautions so that no one would dare do anything of that sort or of any sort of violence in the country.
HPR: You and your wife have been very active in the University of Virginia Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) department. What are your motivations for and perspective on that?
KK: Well, we had two options. Generally, if a member of the military in your family dies or passes away, you kind of withdraw from the support of the military institution. Not us. We continued to support not only ROTC but also the University of Virginia because of its emphasis on public service. That is what takes us back there. Our son benefitted from it. Other sons benefitted from that service to others. That is the concept that is enshrined in the programs and the environment and the teachings at the University of Virginia. So it is service to others that takes us back again and again and guides us to continue to support the programs that we are involved with. Of course, it reminds us of Captain Humayun Khan every time we put our feet on the sacred grounds of the University of Virginia. It reminds us of Captain Humayun Khan, but such is life.
HPR: When you spoke at the DNC, did you foresee a Trump presidency as a realistic possibility?
KK: [Laughing] No, no, no, no, no. Not even in my wildest dreams. No, we did not expect this. We were as shocked as the rest of the nation.
HPR: In your DNC speech, you received significant attention for your offer to lend President Trump a copy of the Constitution and your comment that he had “sacrificed nothing and no one.” What do you make of such a strong reaction?
KK: There are people who know better than him. That is why there was such a reaction against his foolishness and against his totally ignorant way of conducting discourse and conversation. Had he had any sense, he would have had no comment. That’s it. Things would have been totally different, but he had to put his foot in his mouth and utter nonsense such that people reacted against un-American tradition.
HPR: You have vocalized strong opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration. What are your plans to combat the order and other such policies that may arise over the next four years?
KK: When he sees that his country is doing something wrong, a patriot American citizen—a patriot citizen of any country—has an obligation to speak and continue to speak, resist—and I’m talking about peaceful resistance—protest, and join others who are protesting. That has a tremendously powerful impact on the people who are misleading the country. They mend their course. They mend their methods and their foolishness. That is what my hope is, and that is what we will continue to do.
HPR: Your public statements have mobilized many in the South Asian and Muslim American communities to identify more solidly with the struggle against xenophobia and discrimination. What do you strive to convey to these communities through your public presence and activism?
KK: That xenophobia is un-American. Always know this: anyone who uses that kind of rhetoric against any ethnicity or group, be it Muslims or any other community, is practicing un-American [behavior]. Always remind them that xenophobia is un-American. This kind of bigotry will not be accepted. Remain firm, remain standing, remain peaceful, join hands, be stronger, participate in the political process—not only by voting but also by becoming a candidate—serve the county’s voluntary boards, serve the city’s boards, serve the state’s education board and police recruitment board, participate fully, present your perspective, and remain part of the conversation and part of the community, and you will see that this nation has a history of accepting goodness.
HPR: You’re planning to release your memoir later this year. What’s the biggest takeaway that you hope readers get out of it?
KK: That patriotism is not any one person’s property. An immigrant could be as patriotic as someone who is born and raised here. That story needs to be heard: how I fell in love with the Declaration of Independence, how I continue to carry it with me, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, what it has meant for me, and how it all came together for me. The takeaway is that we are blessed to have important values enshrined, and among all of those, the most cherished concept is that of equal protection under law, because that gives all of us equal dignity. We are created equal, regardless of our faiths, genders, and preferences, in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal with equal dignity.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/B. Allen/VOA