IOWA CITY — When Khizr Khan sees an American flag, he sees his son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan.
He sees the casket that held his son’s body in 2004, draped by the flag of the nation he died serving. He sees Arlington Cemetery and the countless headstones of soldiers of all ages, ethnicities and religions.
And he remains respectful. He puts his hand over his heart.
“They all died for the values of this country, so this flag symbolizes that,” Khan told a packed crowd at The Englert in Iowa City on Monday night — in answer to a question about the NFL protests that have captured the attention of the country and President Donald Trump.
“I cannot bear the thought of disrespecting the flag,” Khan said, and yet, “I do understand ... other persons have equal rights to express themselves. As long as they are not being threatening, as long as they are not being harmful to my safety, to the safety of the community, we are a very tolerant and patient nation.”
Khan became a household name last year when he criticized then-candidate Trump during the Democratic National Convention by pulling out a pocket U.S. Constitution and offering to share it with Trump. He spoke in Iowa City for the University of Iowa-community collaboration known as The Green Room.
The student-run class inviting community members to participate aims to bring together the community around ideas of how to improve it both locally and nationally. And Khan contributed to that conversation Monday by urging tolerance, equality and vigilance.
He recounted questions from young children about whether they will get to finish elementary school or be deported — questions that motivated him to speak at the convention despite his hesitations.
He recalled standing in his Pakistan dorm room as a young law student in 1972, having been assigned heavy reading materials for the course, “comparative studies of world constitutions.” Looking down at the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Khan recalled the start of a “love affair.”
“Is there a nation that realized that we must declare our independence?” Khan said. “I stood there in awe of that first word. And then read the entire Declaration of Independence standing. My feet were tired, but I kept reading it.”
And he expressed concern with the deep divides splitting this country at its political seams — and the forces driving them.
“It is absolutely necessary at this point, at this juncture, at this moment, to remain vigilant. Because I remember, I have seen the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and they have not forgotten the grudge,” he said. “They have kept that grudge in their mind against the United States.”
He noted the Eastern European power’s “barrage of attacking our system of democracy is not without malice or purpose,” a reference to reports that Russia interfered with the 2016 election and has continued with cyberattacks.
“They want to interfere with our system of government,” he said. “So we need to remain vigilant.”
And, still, Khan voiced hope and a positivity that the United States will continue to be a “beacon of hope for the rest of the world.”
Since his impassioned speech during last year’s convention about, among other things, his son — who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Iraq — Khan has spoken at 156 invitations.
What he’s witnessed, as he’s crisscrossed the country, gives him hope.
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“I am a testament to the goodness of this country,” he said. “That once people of this country realize how blessed they are, how they have been since its inception a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, they will join together, their differences aside ... I am so positive. I am so hopeful.”
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