I read my friend Atif Qarni’s well-written, passionate op-ed in the Washington Post — “What happened when a Muslim ran for local office in Virginia” and found myself mostly agreeing with it. I do, however, have some disagreements with what Atif wrote that I’d like to explain. But first, here’s where I agree.
1. There’s no question that there’s a vast amount of ignorance and bigotry out there when it comes to Muslim Americans. According to a 2014 Pew survey, for instance, the U.S. public has the “warmest” feelings on average for Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians, with the “coldest” feelings towards Muslims and Atheists. And all you need to do is read the newspapers or watch the cable news shows to get a million examples of anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice on pretty much a daily basis. It’s a sad, pathetic, inexcusable state of affairs, an embarassment to our great nation.
2. There’s also no question that a few people in Virginia Senate Democratic leadership – first and foremost Minority Leader Dick Saslaw – discouraged Atif from running and instead looked for white Christian alternatives. Thus, Saslaw et al. worked to recruit white Christian guys Rex Parr and David Brickley, both of whom opted not to run, before settling on white Christian guy Jeremy McPike as their preferred candidate. The thing that’s maddening is that Saslaw et al. did this without any real evidence that a white, Christian candidate would perform better in the general election than a Pakistani-American, Muslim candidate. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that Dick Saslaw is a bigot, simply that he looks at the bigotry out there and, instead of fighting it, caves in to it by throwing up his hands and saying “it’s hopeless, a Muslim-American can’t win in that district.” Again, what’s that based on? Anything scientific or data-driven? Not to my knowledge.
2a. In fact, as Atif points out in his op-ed, he came closer to beating Del. Bob Marshall in 2013 than any Democrat had done previously — and that includes several white, male, Christian candidates (e.g., Bruce Roemmelt) Democrats had run previously. I’d add that in 2013, Atif received 8,448 votes in his House of Delegates district. That compares to the 8,256 votes received by Mark Herring in the same district (#13). That’s right: Atif Qarni, the Pakistani Muslim guy downballot from the white, Christian Mark Herring, actually received 192 more votes than Herring did. Hmmmmm….so how did being a Muslim or Pakistani-American hurt Atif exactly? No idea. Meanwhile, in Jeremy McPike’s 2013 House of Delegates race in the 31st district, he received 71 more votes than Mark Herring did. That’s strong, but not quite as strong as Atif Qarni’s 192-vote advantage over Mark Herring in the 13th district. Again, if Dick Saslaw at least had some solid, empirical basis for his effort to bypass Atif Qarni for a white, Christian person, that would be one thing; but he didn’t and he doesn’t. If anything, from a purely political calculation perspective, one would think that the Democrat (Atif) who lives in Manassas, which is Republican nominee Harry Parrish’s base, would be a better matchup against Parrish, as he could help hold down Parrish’s victory margin there, while racking up the votes in the much “bluer,” souther parts of the district.
3. I agree with everything Atif says about Muslim Americans: that overwhelmingly, they “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.” If there’s prejudice out there against Muslim Americans, it’s the Democratic Party’s job to fight it, not to accept it, acquiesce to it, or allow it do influence our thinking in a negative way when it comes to recruiting and supporting (or not supporting) candidates. How about we leave all that to the Republican Party, since they seem inclined in that direction regardless?
With that, here’s where I differ with Atif.
1. “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.” True, but let’s not do the “false equivalency” thing here. The reality, according to Pew, is that anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry in America is FAR more prevalent among Republicans and those who lean Republican than among Democrats and those who lean Democratic. Among Democrats, the mean “thermometer” rating for Muslims is 47 — just above Mormons and Atheists – compared to a super-cold 33 rating for Musims by Republicans. In general, Republicans have more polarized views towards religious groups than Democrats do: far more positive towards the ones they like (Evangelical Christians first and foremost) and far more negative towards the ones they do NOT like (Muslims and Atheists in particular).
2. “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.” Yes, I’ve seen Dick Saslaw do this twice now — with Atif Qarni this year and with Jaime Areizaga-Soto four years ago. On the other hand, as Del. Alfonso Lopez recently explained, Virginia Democrats are overwhelmingly more diverse than Virginia Republicans. For instance, as Lopez writes: “Democratic women in contested [House of Delegates] seats: 17, Republican women in contested seats: 4;” “Democratic people of color in contested [House of Delegates] seats: 9, Republican people of color in contested seats: 5;”
“Democratic women in contested [State Senate] seats: 7,” “Republican women in contested seats: 3;”
“Democratic people of color in contested [State Senate] seats: 4, Republican people of color in contested seats: 0.” So again, let’s stay away from the false equivalency here. The reality is that Democrats are a far more diverse party, one that “looks a LOT more like America” than does the Republican Party. Of course, that does NOT excuse the way Atif Qarni was treated, or attitudes among the Dick Saslaws of the world towards Muslims, South Asians, Latinos, etc, but let’s not allow one well-past-his-“sell-by-date,” “old school” outlier like Saslaw to tarnish an entire political party.
3. “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.” Same point as I just made about staying away from false equivalency between the two political parties. There’s simply no comparison between a party whose 2016 presidential candidates are busy demonizing Muslims and many other groups, not to mention using wildly offensive language such as “anchor babies.” Can you even imagine Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton talking like that? Ee gads, no.
4. Finally, while I agree with most of what Atif had to say in this post, personally I personally would have waited until after the election to post his op-ed. I understand that Atif felt very strongly about this — and I don’t blame him for that one bit, as in fact all Muslim-Americans, and really all Americans, should be outraged at how Atif was treated by Saslaw et al. What I don’t want is for Atif to somehow be blamed if, let’s just say, Jeremy McPike loses on November 3 and Democrats don’t take back the State Senate because of it.
One final point: I’m proud of Atif Qarni’s courage in putting this out there, risking a backlash from the “powers that be,” possibly harming his future political career, etc. But what else would we expect from a U.S. combat Marine? Semper fi, bro…Semper Fi! 🙂