Washington. Khizr Khan, the Muslim-American lawyer thrust into the spotlight after speaking at the Democratic National Convention a few days ago about his soldier son and criticising Donald Trump, says he has no regrets about the speech or the attention that followed.
“I will do it [a] million times, I will do it louder, I will do it forcefully,” Khan told Kelly McEvers, host of NPR’s All Things Considered. “I’ll do it [a] hundred million times -- now is the time for the rest of the world to see the true America, the decent America, the good America.”
Khizr Muazzam Khan (born 1950) and his wife Ghazala Khan (born 1951) are the Pakistani American parents of US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War. The couple received international attention following a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
During Khan’s convention speech, he painted Trump’s policies toward immigration as un-American and held up a pocket Constitution, challenging Republican nominee Trump to read it.
Trump and his allies hit back at the Khan family -- the candidate said Khan’s wife, Ghazala, stood next to him silently because “may be she was not allowed to have anything to say, you tell me.”
Trump’s comments were then condemned by political leaders on both sides of the aisle, including Republican veteran Senator John McCain. The Khans consistently did interviews on television and radio stations.
But Khizr Khan says that although the family has received hate mail and threats, the overwhelming support from strangers -- from cabdrivers to teenage college students -- is what has stayed with him. Strangers have also flocked to their son’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I was there and I was just amazed,” Khan said. “There were so many flowers and so many people. ... It is an honour.”
The Khans said they had also visited since the convention speech. Khan said that when he went, “I did what I do all the time. I stand their quietly and I close my eyes, and I talk to my creator.”
Khan said that while his family’s grief over the loss of their son had been mostly private for the past 12 years, he did not regret the story being so public now. “We are very deliberate people. We have discussed that there is going to be criticism,” he said.
He said that all the support the family is receiving now is a testament to his son’s “grace.”
“The way he sacrificed his life, that grace continues to shine. All these words and events, and this public reception of us as his parents -- this is all under that grace of caring for others,” Khan said.
Khan also addressed criticism that they should not have used their son’s death to wade into politics. He said he thought about staying out of the political conversation, but ultimately felt that calling out Trump was worth the “price” that he has had to pay:
“I would have such a burden on my conscience if I would have not spoken. In the midst of the grief, we don’t set our conscience aside.
There are some prices that must be paid. There are certain concerns and certain hearts that must be touched regardless of the price,” he said.
“Someday, and I’m a strong believer, that when we appear in front of our God, I will have one thing to say about myself. That regardless of this, I preferred to comfort a scared heart.”
Khizr and Ghazala Khan are originally from Punjab province in Pakistan, belonging to Gujranwala and Faisalabad, respectively. They met at the Punjab University in Lahore, where Ghazala was an educator, teaching Persian to college students, and Khizr was studying law.
The couple moved first to the United Arab Emirates, where their son Humayun was born, and then to the US in 1980. They settled in Massachusetts, where Khizr earned an LLM degree from Harvard Law School. The family then moved to Maryland, where Khizr worked as a legal consultant.
Their middle child, Humayun, was a US Army captain who served in Iraq during the Iraq War. In 2004, he was killed in Baqubah, Iraq, in an explosion. He had ordered his unit to take cover as he stepped forward to engage a suspicious vehicle, which was later found to be carrying over 200 pounds of explosives.
On July 28, the final day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Khizr, accompanied by Ghazala, gave a speech about their son Humayun, during which he harshly criticised Republican nominee for president Donald Trump. Khan took issue with several of Trump’s policies, including his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Many news outlets focused on two passages from the speech in particular:
Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the US Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law.”
Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the US. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicity. You have sacrificed nothing -- and no one.
When Khizr offered to lend Trump his copy of the Constitution, he pulled from his pocket a worn small version that he has carried for years, in what the Washington Post called the most memorable image from the DNC. Khan said afterwards that the gesture was unplanned, and that he ad-libbed the sentence about lending Trump his copy upon realising he had it in his pocket. Following the speech, sales of pocket Constitutions spiked, with one 2005 edition rising to the second position on Amazon.com’s best sellers list.
New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan declared the speech “the fulcrum of this election,” and one minute after it had ended, a spike in searches for “register to vote” was seen on Google.
Aftermath of speech
Asked about the content of the speech in an interview with ABC News, Trump suggested that Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff had written the speech (according to the Khans, it was they who wrote it), and disputed the charge that he has not made sacrifices, saying,
“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices...I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.” Trump also remarked on Ghazala’s presence on stage: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. [Maybe] she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Trump’s comments sparked widespread outrage and condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, and were widely reported in the press. Prominently, Republican Senator John McCain issued a statement in which he expressed his disagreement with Trump’s statement, saying, “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
The organisation Veterans of Foreign Wars followed with a statement saying, “Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression.”
Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said that Trump’s comparison of his own sacrifice to families who lost family members in war was “insulting, foolish and ignorant.”
The Jewish War Veterans of the US said that Trump was worthy of “contempt” and said that his remarks on Ghazala Khan were “vile beyond words.” An open letter by over 20 Gold Star families called upon Trump to apologise to the Khans.
Amita Kelly is a digital editor and producer on NPR’s Washington Desk. She executes election, politics, and policy coverage for NPR.org