Gold Star dad Khan talks about Charlottesville, the Constitution at Temple Shalom

Khizr Khan told an audience at Temple Shalom how he discovered the U.S. Constitution. “I remain in awe at the words of the Bill of Rights,” he said. Photo by Ian Thal

Khizr Khan watched the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville from his car. But the Pakistani-American felt anything but safe inside.

“I heard those ugly chants with my own ears. I was afraid for my life and slumped in my car as the procession was passing.”

Khan came to national attention a year earlier when, introduced as a Gold Star dad, he pulled out a pocket Constitution at the Democratic National Convention and excoriated then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric, including a proposed ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

Khan, 68, who lives in Charlottesville, recalled both incidents in a talk at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase on Saturday evening.

Khan lost a son in a suicide attack in Iraq in 2004. At the Democratic convention he asked the future president, “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.”

Seated on the bimah at Temple Shalom, Khan told 300 people of his concerns about rising levels of intolerance in American society.

Khan’s constitution wasn’t visible at Temple Shalom, although it was in evidence in his life story.

In 1972, as a second year law student, shortly after the collapse of a military dictatorship in his native Pakistan — a period during which he pointedly noted that the press had been called “the enemy of the people” — he had read the U.S. Constitution.

“I remain in awe at the words of the Bill of Rights,” he said.

“For three years in my spare time, I read the constitutions of the rest of the world, different countries, and then I read our Constitution one more time. I found that no other government speaks to the fundamental values that our faith teaches us, dignifies human beings, uplifts human beings.”

He turned to the first five words of the First Amendment — the article that defends freedom of expression and religion — “Congress shall make no law” as a unique feature lacking in other nations’ constitutions, in that it places absolute limits on the power of government on individuals.

“These are not rights, but human dignities our creator bestowed,” he said.

The Khans lost the second of their three sons, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, in 2004, in a suicide attack on a guard post in Baqubah, Iraq. The two occupants of the taxicab bearing the improvised
explosive device also killed two Iraqi bystanders.

Because Capt. Khan had ordered his troops to move back and he had stepped forward to engage the oncoming vehicle, the car bomb was detonated before it could reach the checkpoint or the nearby mess hall where hundreds of soldiers were dining. He was posthumously awarded the Army Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

At Temple Shalom, congregants peppered Khan with questions about extremism in the United States and abroad. Asked what is the best way to address the issue of Confederate monuments, such as the one that white nationalists rallied to defend in Charlottesville, Khan said, “We should do what Baltimore did,” citing the city’s nighttime removal of the statues. “We should not celebrate those monuments.”

Another audience member noted that anti-Israel sentiment on the extreme left often embraces anti-Semitism, including sympathies with terror organization such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the UK Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Khan said that his attention has not been focused on left-wing extremism or on British politics. But, he said, “We have all been created by one God. We are all equal in the eyes of the creator, regardless of faiths, and territories that divide us.”

He added, “Sometimes some of my former Pakistani friends do not like me because I believe this.”

Ian Thal is a Washington-area writer.

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