Khizr Khan speaks with young Muslims at the Muslim Public Affairs Council conference in Long Beach on Sunday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A group of teens and twenty-somethings gathered in a nondescript meeting room at the Long Beach Convention Center, hoping for a chance to say a few words and take a selfie with one of the most fervent opponents of Donald Trump to emerge from the 2016 election.
Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who became a viral sensation after speaking at the Democratic National Convention about the death in Iraq of his Army captain son, is no longer on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton. Now the 65-year-old has a new mission: inspiring hope in young Muslims, some of whom had never voted in an election before last month, some of whom weren’t old enough to vote at all.
“There he is,” a few said as the well-dressed Khan, a lawyer, entered the room. “There’s Uncle!” they whispered in excitement, using a term of endearment and respect for elders among South Asians.
Thirty-three days after Trump was elected, many of these Muslims were feeling dejected. Some attended mosques in Southern California that received anonymous letters vowing that the next president would “do to Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.” Others knew hijab-wearing women who had faced harassment amid a wave of anti-Muslim incidents reported around the country since the election.
All had heard the president-elect’s vows to restrict Muslim immigration, his suggestion that there could be a Muslim registry, and his assertion that Islam “hates” Americans.
“Never feel afraid, never feel disheartened,” Khan said in an hourlong talk at the annual conference of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Highland Park-based civic organization. He urged the crowd of high schoolers, recent college graduates, nonprofit workers and budding activists to “stand up” against the “politics of fear.”
“Whenever in the life of decent people throughout the history of mankind, whenever there have been difficult times, there have been times when their values were tested. That is why we we are here, that is why I am here, that is why you are here,” Khan said. “To make sure the goodness of this country [lasts], the goodness that we cherish when we call ourselves proud Americans.”
In the small world of American Muslim and South Asian organizations, Khan, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and is a naturalized citizen from Pakistan, has become a sought-after speaker. Before Sunday, he had visited with about two dozen groups since the election and plans to visit a few dozen more, all while working on a memoir that will be released next year. It’s talking with those who are decades younger than him, he said, that “heartens me.”
“Believe me, what you feel in your heart at this very moment about the future of your country, about your future, exactly the same thoughts and feelings are in Michigan, in Chicago, in Portland, Ore.; in Texas, in Columbus, in Boston. So all of us and all decent Americans feel exactly the same way.… If you are so discouraged or so concerned, we are all together. Not only are we together, but most of America stands with the same sentiments, same concerns that we have as Muslims, as immigrants,” he said. “I am testament to that. I have been to those gatherings. I have seen Caucasian Americans lined up in the hall, feeling exactly the same way you and I feel. Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Muslim Americans, children and adults. So we are not alone.”
Khan emphasized that “it has been worse” for groups other than Muslims, pointing to the experiences of black and Jewish Americans during the civil rights movement and violence during the women’s suffrage movement. He told the group they needed to trust their institutions even if they disagreed with Trump.
“Nobody will take away your rights,” he said. “Congress is in place.… It will take years before anything is changed or implemented.” But Muslims, he said, also needed to become more engaged. “Nobody is going to put your rights on a plate and say, ‘Here, citizen, here [are] your rights, enjoy them.’”
Lana El-Farra, who sat in the front row, asked Khan how they could push their community to become more involved politically when many Muslims, like many other Americans, were more concerned with jobs and schools than foreign policy or politics.
“How do we change that?” said El-Farra, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles who works at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“We should train ourselves.… How do we prepare our leaders? How do we make them more mainstream?” Khan said. He encouraged Muslims to run for local office. “We just vote and we come home we think we have participated. No, the time has come. Think of how many times Abraham Lincoln ran and lost.”
Tahil Sharma, an interfaith activist born to Sikh and Hindu parents, asked Khan how Muslims and non-Muslims could work together to combat bigotry and hate.
“How do we across different cultural and religious communities seek the reconciliation we need to put our guard down to understand different communities and build the bridges that we need … to help us to fight for the justice that requires a lot of energy?” said Sharma, a 24-year-old from Claremont who works for AMP Global Youth, a part of the nonprofit Americans for Informed Democracy.
Khan nodded, suggesting he saw it as the job of Muslims to build ties to other religious communities, giving an example of the religious items he keeps in his home. “If you come to my home, you’ll see a picture of Guru Nanak on my desk, you’ll see a copy of Gita,” he replied, referring to the founder of Sikhism and a Hindu scripture. "Our creator has created all of us."
Amir Malik, a 27-year-old engineer from Los Angeles, had a more pointed political question.
“What is the future of the Democratic Party with the establishment’s candidate losing? How can we position ourselves for the future?”