Qasim Rashid discusses current politics, run for Virginia Senate in Spectrum Q&A
Human rights attorney and advocate Qasim Rashid has helped change and shape the narrative around the Muslim American experience for over a decade.
Rashid, who is now running for a seat in the Virginia Senate for the 28th district, sat down for a Q&A with The Spectrum on Wednesday night to discuss current U.S. politics, becoming a lawyer, and his motivation for running for office.
Q: A Brooklyn councilman was fired from an immigration committee for tweeting that “Palestine does not exist.” How has America's perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict changed since you came to America?
A: Well, I came to America 32 years ago, and I've written about this before. What's interesting is that Republican and Democratic administrations alike have been adamant about finding a justice-based two-state solution. I'm not sure if that's true. So we'll see where this administration goes with it.
Q: In the past you have tweeted out about comments towards Ilhan Omar in Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News segment. In your speech today, you spoke about how one group’s marginalization should not be lumped in with another group’s marginalization, but many have drawn parallels between how Pirro talked about Omar and how people have spoken about Jewish people before. What are your thoughts?
A: I think that what Jeanine Pirro said was inaccurate and harmful. Just today, Rep. Omar was given a bomb threat at the event she was speaking in. So you have to wonder, is there a correlation between them? You don't know.
But when we look at the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the fact that Muslims represent 1% of the population but suffered 20% of religiously motivated [hate crimes] last year, that's all the more reason why we need to be very careful when you have somebody with the influence of Jeanine Pirro promoting flat-out falsehoods about Muslims at a time where there's already an elevated level of white supremacy. I think that when you're dealing with marginalized communities, it's necessary to be sensitive and compassionate to this, because they mentioned the comparison with Jewish communities. Jewish [people] in America have it even worse. They represent 2% of the population, and approximately 50% are religiously motivated … And I just have zero tolerance for people who promote these dehumanizing tropes about Jewish [people] or Muslims in their own right. They're horrible. We don't necessarily need to compare them. But we can see the impact of what happens when these really vicious comments are made by each of the communities.
Q: You often speak at schools and universities about topics that many considered controversial. Before your lecture today, our dean of student life played a video about freedom of speech. How often have you been faced with criticism at events like these in schools and universities, or other public events?
A: Define criticism?
Q: Criticism like members of the audience being excessively confrontational.
A: It happens randomly. I try to be balanced in my approach, and try to be objective in my approach, of course, I'm not perfect, I'm human. I've certainly had experiences where they'll call me a terrorist, or they'll be nasty and vicious. I'll let them talk. You know, have their day.
I remember an experience in Miami where I was speaking at a church and one of the congregants got up and called me a terrorist and said, “You don't belong here, you should get out.” I let him finish his piece and after he was finished, I said, 'Why don't you join me at my table afterwards, we'll break bread.' And he chose to get up and leave. In his place — it was an interfaith event — I had a group of about 15 Jewish [people] and Christians give me a collective group hug afterwards. And I think that's just a part of the reality that you have to go through. But this should never discourage you, or dissuade you from continuing the conversation, because it's such a crucial conversation.
Q: What are your thoughts on the recent anti-BDS bill that was passed by the Senate in February? Do you think it’s an infringement on first amendment rights or do you think that protects people from anti-semitism?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think that if there was an anti-semitism bill, that would make a lot of sense. I mean, you're talking about a secular state, a state agency. So the idea that you would restrict a private person's decision to do business or not do business doesn't make sense to me. So whether you support BDS or not is a different conversation. Why the government is involved in that, it's confusing. I'm not sure how to justify that, and I don't see it holding up in court.
Q: You’re running for Virginia Senate currently. What pushed you to make that decision?
A: The final straw was the failure of Virginia to ratify the ERA. Since I got into law school, one of the first pro-bono environments I got involved in was working with survivors of domestic and sexual assault. And that's something that I continue to do to this day. It's a fundamental part of my identity, of who I am. I worked in a women's rights organization for several years, focused on this exclusively. And so just the idea that one man choosing 'No' on a commitment that 81% of Virginians support, is just the antithesis of what representative democracy supposed to be. That was the final straw.
In addition to that, the failures in education, healthcare, have been very painful on many fronts. Virginia is the ninth-wealthiest state in the country. But 35th in expenditure on people. We spend almost three times as much on inmates that we do our students. And when you look at healthcare, 63% of bankruptcies that Americans file are due to medical bills. I believe healthcare is a legal right. So for me, this is really exclusively about taking the work that I've done in education, in health care, expansion in women's rights, in criminal justice reform, and showing people that this is what I've done for a long time. And if given the opportunity to be a public service, I'll enact this policy of larger scale.
Q: Were you, in part, inspired by the fact that the new batch of Congresswomen included Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar? Was that motivation for you?
A: Oh, absolutely. I think I even tweeted out a picture of those two, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — the picture of those four. And I tweeted out that it's remarkable to me that my kids will grow up — I have three kids all under the age of 10 — looking at this as normal. Something so inconceivable when I was 10 years old, they're going to look at it like it's no big deal. And so that is really exciting. We have a three year old daughter, love her to death, so for her to grow up seeing four women of color in these power positions leading and changing the narrative, is really inspiring.
Q: Did you choose your career as a lawyer, in part, to be an advocate for immigrants who don’t have a voice?
A: The story of how I became a lawyer is actually a pretty funny story. I was applying to grad school for an MBA. And, you know, you write all these essays— like this insane number of essays for grad school. And I wrote these things and my wife, Ayesha, is reading them, and I'm waiting for her reaction. And she looks at me dead in the eye, and goes, "This is the worst piece of trash I've read in my entire life."
And I was kind of devastated and a little bit offended. I said, “Well, what do you think I should do, if you're so smart?” She said, “Well, you're pretty passionate about human rights stuff why don’t you go to law school? And I was like, “Nah, I don’t think so.” But she was like, “No, I've decided you're going to law school.” That was literally the end of the conversation.
Tanveen Vohra is a co-senior news editor and can be reached at Tanveen.Vohra@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @TanveenUBSpec.