Curtain Call / Khizr Kahn’s Beacon of Hope at Quick Center
It was the 2016 Democratic Convention’s most electrifying moment: Muslim lawyer Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala stood before thousands in Philadelphia. In carefully measured words, he said, “Donald Trump, you're asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ ”
Alternately praised and vilified since then, Khan is on a national lecture tour. Local audiences can hear the Gold Star father whose son, the 27-year-old Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq, speak on the American Constitution and other matters at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts Nov. 14.
“I am a student of the Constitution and I am still learning and reading,” said Khan, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. “We really have to understand the intent of the framers, how it all came together. As things have changed, it requires an interpretation of what they meant. To a student like myself, I look at the original language, the original text. Without understanding the purpose, it remains a mystery. Issues have evolved; the community and the society have evolved. Having a total understanding of the original document is absolutely necessary.”
“Understanding” is not the same as being a strict originalist, taking everything in the document literally. After all, the Constitution had, as its basic intent, nothing less than the uplifting of the people. Still, not until the 13th Amendment (1865) was slavery abolished. Not until the 14th (1868), Khan’s favorite, were all citizens given “equal protection of the laws.”
Khan’s love affair with American ideals started in 1972, when he was in his second year of law school in his native Pakistan. “I was in awe of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence: to be free from the yoke of colonialism,” he said. “Those forefathers were brave enough to declare their independence. I take that spirit that the people will prevail as the character of the American nation. I have read several constitutions of the world — Russia, Germany, the Magna Carta. I don’t find any society organizing itself in such a deliberate manner for uplifting its citizens with inalienable rights and being so particular about those dignities.”
Born in rural Pakistan in 1950, the eldest of 10 children, Khan met his wife when both were students at Punjab University in Lahore. (She was studying the Persian language.) Moving first to Dubai, where two of their three sons were born, they arrived in the U. S. in 1980 and became citizens six years later. The couple lived in Houston, then Silver Spring, Md., before settling in Charlottesville, Va., ironically the site of last year’s right-wing, anti-immigrant riots.
“We were told not to go out,” he recalled of those threatening days. “But I decided to go to the bookstore. I was stuck in traffic and, as I sat in the car, I saw people standing outside their cars, so I came out, also. I saw with my own eyes, I heard with my own ears, the ugly hatred that was displayed in Germany in the Second World War.” (The procession was chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”)
“I was horrified. When I saw guns, I got back in my car and rolled up the window. Others did exactly the same thing. It was an un-American display of hatred. And I remember the thought came to my mind was, ‘My God, we sacrificed thousands of men and women in that war. We buried it in Europe, but it has followed us.’ ”
The next night, Wednesday, in Charlottesville was a different story. An email went around, citing the need to come together. “I wish you would have seen that procession,” said Khan. “Parents came out with their children, holding their hands, singing songs, standing together, telling the kids that this is the real America, not that. That was an attack on our community. And children were heartened, families were heartened.” Even future generations would be affected, he feels.
“I continue to learn; I continue to understand,” he told me. “The wider we open our range, the higher we can fly. Now the world is moving toward one tribe, one kind. We are more interconnected than ever before. Tribalism doesn’t serve forward-looking people. That is what gives me hope. Mankind is like a herd of animals. Some are ahead, some in the middle, some behind. But all are moving forward. I look at it through the lens of my life experience.”
With law degrees from the University of Missouri and Harvard, Khan specializes in the field of electronic discovery. A member of the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, the District of Columbia Bar, the New York State Bar and the American Bar Association, he has appeared on TV with Anderson Cooper to refute charges he’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or advocates Sharia Law over the Constitution.
Having lived under authoritarian dictators and martial law, Khan knows the ploys used to control people’s wishes and aspirations. Attacking the press and media was and is common. Once, Khan witnessed guns purposely aimed at a group of journalists. “Authoritarians know that a free press is the biggest failing dictators have.”
He had spoken in New Jersey the night before our interview. “I wish you were with me last night,” he said. “There was amazing enthusiasm. That was my 227th speaking engagement throughout the nation since 2016. One question I get asked is, ‘What can I do now?’ ”
Similarly, wherever he goes — Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, Iowa — the arc is forward, he feels. “In Cedar Rapids, where half were Republicans and veterans, a lady stood up to say, ‘Mr. Khan, we did not vote for your candidate and we don’t agree on lots of issues with you. But, Mr. Khan, we want you to know that we are as concerned as you are about the direction of our country. And we are having buyers’ remorse.’ She was elegant in saying that and people were nodding their heads about being misled, misguided, misinformed.”
Of the thousands of letters he has received, he remembers one in particular, a six-page missive that read, in part, “Mr. Khan, continue to speak. Had more people spoken during the Second World War, the crimes against our Jewish brothers and sisters could have been avoided.”
Such sentiments prompt Khan to quote Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
At the Democratic Convention, Khan also spoke out about his dead son, Humayun. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” he asked of Donald Trump. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing — and no one.”
Humayun’s grave is in section 60, reserved for those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to official records he was “killed walking towards a suicide bomber after ordering his men to ‘hit the ground.’ ”
Under his name, his stone reads, top to bottom, “Cpt / US Army / Sep 9 1976 / Jun 8 2004 / BSM (Bronze Star Medal) / Purple Heart / Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Etched on his stone is the symbol of Islam, a crescent moon embracing a star, as if Nature were protecting the best in humans.
Despite all Khan and his family have been through, he does not despair and remains active. In remembrance of their son, who graduated from the University of Virginia, the Khans established a scholarship there and, because of their support, have been dubbed “the mom and pop” of the school’s Army ROTC, which Humayun had joined. Khan gives a pocket copy of the Constitution to visitors to his home, as well as to ROTC graduates. In 2017, he released two books, “This is Our Constitution” for young people and “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice,” which the New York Times lauded as “moving” and written “with a poet’s sensibility.”
Khan admits the present moment is difficult. “But it is a moment that is an anomaly,” he told me. “I have felt throughout the country that the goodness of America prevails. It is exactly what took place in Charlottesville when we showed to our children the real America, moving forward with dignity. That Wednesday in August in Charlottesville is the America that is emerging. There is an amazing light I see on the other side of the mountain and we will resume being the beacon of hope for the rest of the world.”
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.
If you go
Khizr Khan will speaker at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts, 1073 North Benson Road, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets $27-$35. Call 203-254-4010 or visit quickcenter.com