NORFOLK, Va. — Khizr Khan is on the verge of tears.
“I’ve prepared some remarks, in writing, but I don’t think this occasion calls for that,” he begins, putting aside his notes and stepping away from the podium. “Let me speak, heart to heart.”
Khan is in this swing region of Virginia to appeal to independent voters, emphasizing Donald Trump’s flaws by appearing at a mosque and a veterans meet-and-greet in this military-heavy town—reminding locals of Trump’s suggestion that Muslims be banned and of his insults to a Gold Star family.
Khan’s son, Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed by an explosion during the Iraq War and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.. Twelve years later, he and his wife, Ghazala, took his grief to the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to challenge a man that he felt his maligned his faith and his war hero son.
“We grieved for 12 years in privacy, in the dignity of our family at home,” until Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric encouraged him to finally speak out, Khan said. “There comes a time in an ordinary citizen’s life, where you gather up all the courage that you have and you speak against tyranny, against un-American hate.”
His remarks in Norfolk leave the impression that he is not interested in being a partisan figure—but a voice for reconciliation after the elections are over. Khan himself has been shaken up many times since he challenged Trump’s knowledge of the Constitution at the July Democratic convention—and was promptly attacked for it by the GOP nominee himself.
The choice of locale strikes to the heart of the Republican Party’s problems this election cycle—an inability to connect with the swing voters that will ultimately decide the election.
In 2012, Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate in Norfolk, hoping that the young Wisconsin lawmaker would give a boost to his campaign, both locally and across the country. Norfolk is part of a larger metropolitan area, including Virginia Beach and Newport News—all areas with large military and veteran populations. Close to two-thirds of Newport News and three-quarters of Norfolk supported Obama in the 2012 presidential election, while just over 50 percent of Virginia Beach went for Romney. In this cycle, while Norfolk remains competitive, the state of Virginia is all but lost for the GOP—Real Clear Politics has Clinton up by 8 percentage points.
By sending him to Virginia, the Clinton campaign is padding its lead and trying to appeal to those military service members and veterans who oppose Trump’s Muslim ban, and agree that cooperation with patriotic American Muslims is critical to defeating the challenge of Islamic terrorism.
“He should continue what he’s doing because it empowers people—he won’t be kicked down by a bully,” said Tom Bazar, a 17-year veteran of the Navy, at the veteran meet-and-greet Khan attended. “The fact is that America is diverse. It will always be diverse. People who fight for the country is diverse. It shouldn’t matter what you look like or where you come from.”
The metropolitan area has the second highest percentage of veterans of any region in the country. Naval Station Norfolk, near where Khan spoke, holds the largest Navy base in the world.
“Donald Trump, as a candidate, has proven himself temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief of this great nation,” Khan said, in a small mosque. “The reason I emphasize this issue in this city, is because this city bears… the treasure of this nation.”
Khan, a lawyer, gesticulates casually with his hands, but also has a grandfatherly habit of rocking back and forth from his toes to heels when speaking passionately. He does not smile when he talks. In fact, an entire afternoon goes by without a smile at all, even when people come up excitedly to take his picture. He nods graciously and casts his eyes to the floor, almost embarrassed by the attention.
His humility is a match for this mosque, a small room that has been serving Muslims in the area for more than 20 years. The modest room holds a replica of the door on the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred mosque and gold paint on the walls—a symbol, perhaps, of their aspirations to one day be grander. “It’s not real gold,” the Imam said. And the small stand which holds the Quran, the Muslim holy book, is made from supplies rigged together from The Home Depot.
Even during a relentless criticism of Trump, Khan keeps a calm, humble demeanor as he stumps. It echoes a recent pro-Clinton advertisement put out by the campaign, in which Khan challenges Trump: ““I want to ask Mr. Trump: Would my son have a place in your America?”
But Khan doesn’t sound so much like a Clinton surrogate as much as he sounds like an anti-Trump figure.
In fact, he only mentions Clinton twice during his entire speech at the mosque.Standing beside, not behind, a podium with Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ slogan, he takes the unusual step of praising Republicans as being patriotic Americans—hardly the language of a typical partisan stump speech.
"Patriotism is not the property of one group,” he insists. “Republicans are as patriotic as anyone else.”
He pauses again to compose himself when telling the story of four children who wrote to him, asking for help, because they were worried their Muslim friend might be kicked out of the country.
“She is our friend, we love her,” he recalls the letter reading. “Would you make sure she is not thrown out? I have saved that email to show to the rest of the world how damaging that political rhetoric… has been for the children of this country, for the Muslims of this country, for other honorable citizens of this country.”
In many ways, he is campaigning primarily not for any candidate, but for the future of the country his son died for—in the fear of what happens if the election ends and the rancor does not subside.
“Immediately after the election, regardless of the results… the healing ought to start,” he said. The division that has been created by this candidate, by Donald Trump ought to cease… coming together must begin. And that starts with forgiveness, with understanding of each other. Of course we have different political opinions, but we are not enemies.”
It’s a message that resounds with the two dozen attendees at his speech at the mosque, about half of whom are not even Muslim. Dr. Lenora Thompson, a counselor from Virginia Beach, said that she was there to promote the idea that “Muslims love America… that their ideas are integral to the idea of America, to the point that his son gave his life.”
Khan’s speech ends, and he moves towards the side of the room. As if to hammer Khan’s point about patriotism home, a man in a Navy camouflage uniform walks to the front of the room and, facing Mecca, begins singing the Islamic call to prayer.
“Allahu akbar…” the sailor begins.
Led by the imam, Khan gets on his knees, and lowers his forehead towards the earth to pray.