President Joe Biden on Friday announced plans to nominate Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who famously criticized Donald Trump, for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Khan told BuzzFeed News of the two-year appointment. “I had looked forward to playing a role where I could contribute to the well-being of my country.”
Khan's son Humayun Khan, a US Army captain, was killed in a suicide attack while serving in Iraq in 2004. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor after the fatal attack in which he saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
Khan, a Pakistani-born graduate of Harvard Law School, is widely recognized for the powerful speech he delivered at the 2016 Democratic National Convention with his wife, Ghazala Khan, at his side in which he lambasted Trump’s disparaging comments about Muslim Americans.
“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,'” Khan said after pulling out a pocket-sized copy for effect. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
In response, Trump frequently attacked the grieving Khan family, drawing criticism from supporters and other Republicans, including the late Arizona senator John McCain.
With the news of his new position, Khan said he would like to thank his son, who he said is a “perpetual burning candle to guide us.”
“That light is the light of service to others regardless of position, regardless of place, regardless of capacity,” Khan said. “We all can serve others. As long as we do that, we create a better community, a better nation, a better humanity.”
USCIRF consists of private sector commissioners who volunteer for the agency and are appointed by the president, as well as members of Congress. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 mandates that commissioners like Khan are “selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.”
Khan said that to be appointed by Biden makes him "so proud," referring to the president as a “champion of tolerance.”
Khan, who immigrated to the United States in 1980, lives in Virginia and is the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project.
Khan is one of two American Muslims named to key posts. Biden also announced his intent to nominate Rashad Hussain as ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
“The nominations represent an important step in the Biden Administration's commitment to build a government that reflects the diversity of our nation,” Council on American Islamic Relations National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “It is important that American Muslims — and particularly Muslim youth — see themselves and their values reflected in our nation’s government.”
Khan told BuzzFeed News he sees this role as an opportunity to give back to his country all that it has given him and its citizens. Step one in the new role will be speaking about the challenges to religious tolerance in the US and abroad. The next layer of progress, he said, goes beyond just naming the issue, to engage with communities and identify how religious tolerance is connected to economic prosperity.
“We need the world to see how we disagree yet remain faithful to our country,” Khan said.
He added that as a second-year law student he dove into the US Constitution. Of all the human rights in the nation’s guiding document, Khan said the one that stands out the most is the First Amendment.
“I don’t mean to say that it’s a perfect document … there’s still a lot of that needs to be done,” Khan said. “I reflect on that, and I become more formed in my belief that … we must speak, we must share, we must learn from each other because it teaches us with equal dignity, freedom. Something that we all cherish.”
Khan said he would like to see literacy of the Constitution “more commonly taught to everyone,” especially in the context of personal rights and freedoms. In a moment of increased intolerance across the nation spurred by politics and the pandemic, Khan said that “knowing the DNA of this country,” violence is short-lived.
“Instead of naming and shaming, I believe in engagement,” he said, adding that the “future of mankind” lies in peace and tolerance. “That is where I will be focusing my energy.”