Profiles in Liberty: Suhail Khan of The American Conservative Union
Suhail Khan served as a senior political appointee with the Bush administration. He served in the White House Office of Public Liaison assisting in the President’s outreach to various faith communities. Khan also served as Assistant to the Secretary for Policy under U.S. Secretary Mary Peters at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He now works at Microsoft as their Director of External Affairs.
Khan also serves on the boards of the American Conservative Union and the Indian American Republican Council.
As a conservative operative, Khan’s behind-the-scenes work to promote free-market principles and encourage people of all faiths to become politically active has been beneficial to the liberty movement. You can follow him on Twitter @Suhail_A_Khan.
Matt Naugle: How did you become a conservative & what was it like being a conservative at Berkeley while President Reagan was in office?
Suhail Khan: I recall the excitement of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, the post-Watergate election of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter to the Presidency, and the disappointment of the nation’s economic “malaise” of crippling inflation, unemployment, and long gas lines (including rationing depending on even/odd license plate numbers). In 1980, as a ten year-old, I could feel the renewed sense of optimism when Americans elected my home state of California’s former Governor Ronald Reagan as President. In addition to restoring our national economy, Reagan was especially bold in challenging the “evil empire” of the Communists. As an American whose parents escaped the poverty of the socialist India of the 1960s, I was especially drawn to Reagan’s conservative message of individual, economic, and religious liberty, a strong defense, and family. Reagan stood strong against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and bravely said to the Soviet leader (in the context of a divided Germany), “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
And so it was natural that, as a seventeen-year old college freshman on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, that I would walk up to a table of the fledgling chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and sign up as a member. As young and active “Yaffer,” I read William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, Whittaker Chamber’s Witness, and Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative—works that have proven foundational for countless conservatives, including myself. I would soon join the Berkeley College Conservatives and eventually, upon turning eighteen, proudly register for Selective Service and register to vote as a member of the Republican Party.
I’ve been a proud Reagan conservative ever since, and ultimately I have to credit my being conservative to my parents, my upbringing in America’s West, and my personal faith. I was born in Colorado and raised in California by parents who truly believe in hard work, rugged individualism, personal honesty, loving your neighbor, and being ultimately accountable to the Almighty. In short, I’ve lived the American Dream, and that’s no throw-away cliché—that’s a living reality. As an American conservative, I believe that every American has the right to live their life as they see fit… free from government interference or dictate. I believe that government should not discriminate against anyone because of the color of their skin, their ethnic heritage, or their faith and religious beliefs. I believe in peace through a strong defense. Having had the opportunity to travel all over the globe, I also know firsthand that we are undoubtedly an exceptional country. We are truly a blessed nation, and I’ve dedicated my life to preserving our precious God-given freedoms and to spreading the unparalleled message of freedom and individual liberty.
MN: Your parents immigrated from India. What wisdom did you learn from your parents’ example?
SK: My late grandfather, Major Shaikh Adam, served with distinction in the English Cavalry in both World Wars I and II, including fighting the Fascists and Nazis in the North African theater of World War II. His youngest daughter, my mother Malika Khan, came to U.S. as a young nineteen-year old who knew she wanted do something extraordinary with her life, particularly in the field of science and health. And as a woman from a poor family, she instinctively knew she could secure the opportunity to achieve her dreams in the U.S.
My late father, Dr. Mahboob Khan, was the first in his family to finish high school. Despite being very poor, he turned down a coveted scholarship from the Soviets to study in Moscow because the USSR was a communist country. Instead, he borrowed the money needed to leave his family and everything familiar for the opportunity of the U.S. Even though his parents had no formal education beyond middle school, they saw the U.S. as a free country, as what Ronald Reagan called a “shining city upon a hill,” and a nation where the people believed in God. After flying into New York City in 1966, my father boarded a Greyhound Bus bound for the unknown of the University of Wyoming at Laramie. Later he met and married my mother, and together they built their respective careers (my father in high tech, my mother in microbiology), raised five children, and dedicated their lives to community service. My parents went through great sacrifices for their children, and I’m doing my best to live up to their example by serving others.
MN: How did you get involved with President George W. Bush and how did you serve him in the White House?
SK: I first became a fan of George W. Bush when he was serving as Governor of Texas. He was a young conservative leader who was leading a major state in a hopeful, positive direction. I contacted his campaign in 1998 and began volunteering in 1999. After his inauguration in January of 2001, I was invited to volunteer in the White House Office of Public Liaison in assisting with the faith-based initiative and the first round of tax cuts. I served in the White House through the tragic attacks of 9/11, and was subsequently appointed to several positions in the Administration including Legal Counsel and Assistant to the Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
MN: As a board member of the American Conservative Union, you have been involved in the rapid growth of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). How big will the turnout be this year, and will attendees rally behind Mitt Romney?
SK: I’ve been attending CPAC conventions for over seventeen years and was honored to be elected to the ACU Board several years ago. Over the years, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds; last year we had over twelve thousand conservatives at our annual meeting, and we expect even more this year. And what’s truly special, we made a special commitment to President Reagan that CPAC would be open to young activists from all over the country, and we’ve honored that commitment; last year, over half of our attendees were college activists.
We’ve also launched regional conferences in states like Florida, Illinois, Colorado, and California, and these events are attracting thousands. Conservatives are excited, fired-up, and ready to work to get our country back on track. They are working to elect conservatives at every level including Ted Cruz, Justin Amash, Paul Ryan, Diane Black, Mike Kelly (to name just a few!), and Governor Romney at the top of our ticket.
MN: I recently interviewed Grover Norquist. What do you think of him and his tax pledge?
SK: Grover is a giant in the conservative movement, and I’m proud to know him as a friend. And I’m a huge fan of the tax pledge. The pledge is made to an elected official’s constituents and to the American people, and it allows for a meaningful conversation regarding serious reductions in wasteful government spending. Without taking tax hikes off the table, there’s no way to have an honest discussion about getting our fiscal house in order. Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush learned this fact the hard way in 1983 and 1991 respectively.
MN: Is there such thing as a moderate Muslim? Since core Islamic teachings are compatible with conservatism, how should conservatives approach the issues of Islamic extremism and terrorism?
SK: I prefer the term “mainstream” to “moderate.” A follower of mainstream Islam is someone who believes in God, loves his or her family, their neighbor (regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity), and serves their country.
Violent extremism is a scourge that must be stopped, and I believe the best way to do so is by encouraging people to learn more about their own faith from authentic sources (and not self-proclaimed extremists in the media or on the internet). In doing so, we’d witness the best of faith defeat the worst of religion.
MN: For such a friendly guy, you have the worst search engine results of anyone I know. Why does David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, and Pam Geller hate you so much?
SK: It’s been a sad and ugly phenomenon that, since the 9/11 tragedy, the individuals you cited and a few others have waged a hateful campaign of unfounded allegations against several Americans serving our country based on the faith background of these public servants. I’ve unfortunately been one of those subject to these baseless attacks. Having undergone a thorough background check and obtained the security clearances necessary to serve in the various sensitive positions in which I’ve had the honor to serve, these tired accusations fall into the shameful category of wild conspiracy theories of the past where others—Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Catholics, Mormons—Americans all, have been targeted. Time and time again, we’ve risen above the hate to unite as Americans. I’m proud that President Bush, Ed Meese, the late Paul Weyrich, Morton Blackwell, Cleta Mitchell, Speaker John Boehner, Senator John McCain, Senator Marco Rubio, and many other leading conservative, Jewish and Christian leaders have condemned these unfair attacks.
There are in fact those who wish our nation harm, and these murderous terrorists must be defeated. And in doing so, we should work with all freedom-loving people in this important cause. Likewise, we should resist the call to respond to the hate of our enemies with a bigoted hatred of our own making. We are Americans, and we can take great pride in the fact that, regardless of ethnic and religious heritage, we stand united as one American people.
MN: David Frum on his blog has taken note of how well you dress. Do you have a tailor and where should Republicans purchase their suits?
SK: Well, thank you. My late father was a stickler on dressing appropriately and wouldn’t allow any of us to come to dinner without a collared shirt. And having gone to Catholic school, I’m accustomed to school uniforms! I do visit a great tailor on Capitol Hill, and Republicans, Democrats, and anyone else who cares to dress professionally—and has a little patience—can always use an experienced tailor’s expert help!
MN: What is your interest in cars?
SK: As a red-blooded American male, I admire heroic guys like Evel Knievel, Richard Petty, Steve McQueen, Carol Shelby, and Clint Eastwood, and they all drove fast cars or rode motorcycles. I just love cars and motorcycles, especially sports and muscle cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve been lucky enough to own some neat cars over the years, including MGs, Triumphs, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars and a Mustang or two. Currently, I have a 1961 Harley Davidson FLH “panhead” I restored years ago, and I’m currently looking to get a Shelby Mustang GT500 or a ‘69 SS Chevelle.
MN: What is your favorite book?
SK: One of my favorite books is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, where Atticus Finch stands up, at great personal cost, for truth. Bob Ewell, ignorant and filled with hate, drives the sleepy town’s otherwise good people to convict an innocent person. The Bob Ewells of the world are bullies, and I hope I’m one of those standing up for truth and liberty.
MN: What is your favorite movie?
SK: I love movies, and of all of my favorites (High Noon, Unforgiven, Cool Hand Luke, Royal Tanenbaums), I have to say my favorite is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The true story of a charismatic individual who uses his personal power, influence and wealth to rescue over 1,100 innocent Jews from the destruction of the Holocaust is powerful, and I had the honor to see the film at a premiere with Holocaust survivors. There is much talk about the power of film; well, having experienced Schindler’s List in such solemn circumstances, I can attest to the amazing strength of the silver screen. Years later, in 2010, I was able to lead a delegation, along with two Holocaust survivors, of American faith leaders on a visit to the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps to pay tribute to the millions lost and to bear witness to the scourge of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry. This effort, no doubt, was inspired in no small part to my experience viewing Spielberg’s masterful film.
MN: Final words of wisdom from Suhail Khan?
SK: It’s not exactly wisdom, but I will say I’m truly optimistic about our future—a future where all Americans, regardless of our individual backgrounds, can join and work together to promote our right of free expression, of political vision, of shared concern, and of personal faith. We no doubt face many challenges, but heck, we’re Americans and united, I’m certain our best days lay ahead.