When a Mus­lim ran for a seat in the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture, he ran into un­ex­pected re­sis­tance.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO -

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ben Car­son faced in­tense crit­i­cism re­cently for his re­marks about Mus­lims not be­ing suit­able to be pres­i­dent. In 2013 and 2015, I ran for a seat in the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture. Although Repub­li­cans such as Car­son and Don­ald Trump may be vo­cif­er­ous in their anti-Mus­lim rhetoric, they are not the only ones who think this way.

Many Amer­i­cans are strug­gling with the con­cept of Is­lam and try­ing to come to grips with what it means to be Mus­lim in the United States. Can a per­son be a proud Amer­i­can and a Mus­lim at the same time?

In the minds of many Amer­i­cans, Is­lam and the United States are di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed. To sup­port a Mus­lim run­ning for public of­fice would re­quire that two “com­pet­ing” ide­olo­gies some­how be rec­on­ciled; it would re­quire peo­ple to see Mus­lim Amer­i­cans as as­sets to our na­tion rather than as “threats to na­tional se­cu­rity.” For many, this is a bridge too far.

The hys­te­ria sur­round­ing Mus­lims sur­faced again last month when a 14-year-old-Mus­lim boy was hand­cuffed and in­ter­ro­gated at his school in Texas for bring­ing in a home­made clock that school of­fi­cials said they thought was a bomb.

So what hap­pens when a Mus­lim Amer­i­can an­nounces he is run­ning for state Se­nate? I am a Vir­ginia public school teacher who was born to Pak­istani im­mi­grants. I served hon­or­ably and proudly in the Marine Corps, in­clud­ing a tour in Iraq in 2003.

I was in­vited to meet with the leg­is­la­ture’s key Demo­cratic lead­ers and told I needed to drop out of the race be­cause a Mus­lim would never win. I was told Repub­li­cans would use my re­li­gion against me and make my life mis­er­able. Sev­eral Demo­cratic Party mem­bers also told me that my wife’s head­scarf would be a prob­lem with vot­ers, as would my beard, which I main­tain for van­ity, not re­li­gious pur­poses. I was told Rich­mond is black and white, not brown.

I was shocked by the party es­tab­lish­ment’s re­sponse to my an­nounce­ment in 2015. Just two years be­fore I had chal­lenged the 21-year Repub­li­can in­cum­bent, Del. Robert G. Mar­shall (Prince Wil­liam), and come within 500 votes of beat­ing him. No other Demo­cratic can­di­date had come this close. Hadn’t I proved my loy­alty to the party? Didn’t my hard­work and im­pres­sive num­bers from the 2013 cam­paign show that I was a se­ri­ous con­tender, that I could raise money and get peo­ple to the polls? Wasn’t I fight­ing for ba­sic pro­gres­sive val­ues, such as women’s health-care rights, re­spon­si­ble gun con­trol and same-sex mar­riage?

I ig­nored the party’s warn­ings and pro­ceeded with my cam­paign, know­ing that fundrais­ing and so­lid­i­fy­ing a vot­ing base were key to win­ning the nom­i­na­tion. If the es­tab­lish­ment wasn’t con­vinced that a Mus­lim run­ning for state Se­nate was a good idea, I would prove it wrong. Ul­ti­mately, I knew that vot­ers, not politi­cians from Rich­mond or Fair­fax, would de­cide the out­come ofmy elec­tion.

In ret­ro­spect, Iwasa bit naive and pos­si­bly too ide­al­is­tic. The same group of leg­is­la­tors who tried to per­suade me to drop out of the race found a can­di­date they deemed bet­ter suited for the job. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, the can­di­date was a white Chris­tian male.

When the cam­paign heated up, I was sup­ported by a coali­tion of “non-es­tab­lish­ment” Democrats, while my op­po­nent was sup­ported by the “es­tab­lish­ment.” I raised sev­eral eth­i­cal con­cerns about my op­po­nent’s re­sponse to a whistle­blower com­plaint. The re­but­tal from my op­po­nent’s cam­paign: A mailer, a few days be­fore the pri­mary, that de­picted me in a car­toon­ish fash­ion, with an an­gry ex­pres­sion and over­grown fa­cial hair. My son’s re­ac­tion: “I can’t be­lieve they made you look like a ter­ror­ist.”

There is no greater in­sult to a Mus­lim Amer­i­can (es­pe­cially a com­bat vet­eran of the Iraq war) than to de­pict him as a ter­ror­ist. I was dis­ap­pointed with the state of af­fairs in my own party.

Vir­ginia Democrats claim to fight for ethics re­form, rep­re­sent work­ing-class peo­ple and lead a big-tent party, yet they groom and re­cruit mostly white, Chris­tian, male can­di­dates. A party that prides it­self on be­ing in­clu­sive can be very ex­clu­sive.

Mus­lim Amer­i­cans proudly serve their com­mu­ni­ties in many ca­pac­i­ties — in the mil­i­tary, as public school teach­ers, as state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, as doc­tors, as lawyers and so forth — be­cause they love this coun­try. In a po­lit­i­cal ca­pac­ity, many Mus­lim Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing me, are ac­tively in­volved in rais­ing money, knock­ing on doors and host­ing events for can­di­dates. But when it comes to run­ning for of­fice, we’re not con­sid­ered “Amer­i­can” enough.

This is a cau­tion­ary tale for Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike. Fear­mon­ger­ing for short-term gains in elec­tions has long-term reper­cus­sions, in­clud­ing a loss of trust in the peo­ple who rep­re­sent us.

The road to po­lit­i­cal power is not easy for Mus­lims, but we must con­tinue to pave the way.

NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Atif M. Qarni in 2013.

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