Sam Rasoul is the first and only Muslim in the Virginia legislature. He came into office via a special election in 2014, and has already made headlines. After, he scolded his own party for losing touch with White working-class voters and that President Donald Trump’s supporters shouldn’t be demonized. Stereotypes, he argues, is what has divided this nation, and it’s time to move beyond that and focus on our common ground: the Constitution and our shared principles. He talks to The Islamic Monthly on the problems with identity politics, the future of Democratic Party and where we need to go from here to rebuild the nation.
The Islamic Monthly: There was a lot of emphasis that you place on trust, and your basis on what you call a foundation of common values as opposed to identity politics. But how do you actually address people whose primary argument is that Islam is what’s incompatible with American values?
Sam Rasoul: You bring up identity politics and I think that this is really causing a divide in the American left where we’re rallying too much around identities. We should celebrate our heritage, we should organize by identity, but we shouldn’t advocate and push for certain identities. We shouldn’t talk about women suffrage, or plight of Muslims, or refugees; we should talk about our common American values. When we talk about defending Muslims, defending women, we’re automatically by default excluding someone, but when we talk about defending liberty, when we talk about defending the freedoms that are enshrined within our founding documents, that is inclusive of every American. That’s a message the American left needs to learn as we move forward.
TIM: I watched a lot of your on-the-floor statements and in one of them, you appeal toward the Jeffersonian principles in this house in Virginia where he was as well. Do you often rely on the Founding Father’s principles to move away from exclusion and toward ideals of liberty and justice for all?
SR: Yeah, that’s very important. I think that our republic was created in a way that is meant to be as inclusive as possible. Obviously that means something a little different now than it was back then, but the principles are still the same and there’s plenty there for all of us to rally around. Even when I was sworn in, I swore in on the U.S. and Virginia constitutions, not on any religious document, to send a point that as a proud Muslim American, I’m very proud to be able to be elected to defend the Virginia and U.S. constitutions, because that is our charge as legislators and we shouldn’t forget that.
TIM: What do you think is the future of the Democratic Party?
SR: I think the Democratic Party is firmly in the wilderness right now and doesn’t know exactly what to do. We talk about trust. Fundamentally, the American people have lost a lot of trust in both parties, but in particular, my party. Growing trust is a very simple calculation: People want to know what your values are, and they watch your behaviors. If your behaviors align with your values, then they trust you. If you say I’m for the people, but we’re just as bought off as the other party, or we say we’re for fairness, but we gerrymander just like the other side, people see. We say we’re inclusive, but it’s clear sometimes we are not as inclusive. People see hypocrisy, they don’t see alignment and values, and that’s why there’s a lack of trust. Moving forward, I want to be part of fighting for the heart and soul of the party saying we need to redefine our values and operationalize them.
TIM: You’ve had some critics recently who say that you’ve had too short of a political career to be making these more macro statements. But other people who support you will say, “Actually no, this is a fresh take and an important take that comes from a position of inclusion.”How do you respond?
SR: You’ve got to be objective about it. We’re losing the Democratic Party. We’re losing elections all across this country. We lost in an embarrassing way on November 8.We lost over 1,000 state legislative seats at my level all across this country just in the past eight years. So, losing elections all across this country, and the American people clearly saying you are no longer the party of the people, I don’t know how much more objective you can get than that. So, what we are saying is there must be a different path moving forward and we want to be part of that conversation.
TIM: How do you think the average Muslim or minority community should be responding to the president, who has gone out of his way to attack their basic rights?
SR: As liberals are puppets in his show right now, all he needs to do is create any distraction and all of a sudden, the whole country is completely distracted, including the American left. We need to be laser focused on figuring out what are our values, what do we really want to be defending on the left, and how are we going to do that, coming up with the plan and moving forward. Falling into his trap, or being distracted every time he sends out a tweet is really not leadership. And, I would point you to a historical example, Italy’s Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, a larger-than-life personality. People didn’t know what to do until somebody came up with a novel idea: Why don’t we ignore him? They completely ignored the personality, the man, and focused on the issues. He was defeated twice. Maybe we can learn from that lesson.
TIM: It’s interesting you say this, because in some ways, you can argue that Trump and his treatment of Muslims and minorities is what provoked the Democratic Party or liberals to be very pro-Muslim, in general, with this climate of Islamophobia. But some people say that, in the absence of Trump coming out and attacking Muslims, would the liberals or the Democrats have actually come out and taken such an endorsement of Muslim Americans and inclusion of Muslim Americans? If there were an absence of Islamophobic rhetoric on the right, would Democrats no longer feel the need to support American Muslims?
SR: Regardless of the Islamophobia, where we have gone wrong in the Democratic Party and the American left is to play wholeheartedly into identity politics, which divides us just as much as it can unite us. We need to take a long hard look. We can celebrate our identities and our heritage, we can understand, you know, but we don’t need to be melting pot. We can be a solid ball with all the different pieces. But at the same time, George W. Bush has to show we’re all Americans and we need to be fighting and rallying around those common American values. This is where my party needs to learn and grow as we move forward.
If it wasn’t Muslims, it could be something else, and we see that we are not fighting. We’re fighting for LGBT rights and for women’s rights and for Muslims and for refugees. Well, we shouldn’t be fighting for those groups, we should be fighting for freedom and the liberties that are enshrined in our founding documents and that covers everybody: the woman’s right to choose, the ability to be able to pursue happiness.
TIM: If you go back to some recent previous elections, American Muslims have always had some part in the criticism on both sides. Even in this past administration, you had moments of Obama saying we need American Muslims to help us. We’ve had presidential candidates who said Muslims need to be the eyes and ears in the community.
There’s a lot of emphasis that was put on Muslims because of the fact that there was so much emphasis put on being anti-Muslim on the other side. As a result, people embraced American Muslims in a way they never did before. In many ways, what happened before 9/11 and what is happening now are two completely different strategies. You’ve got people at airports chanting, “We’re all Muslim, we’re all Muslim, I’m a Muslim, you’re a Muslim, we’re all Muslim.” Is that only because of the rhetoric that’s coming out of Trump and his administration? If that was not there, would this pro-Muslim sentiment as a pushback have existed?
SR: Maybe it wouldn’t exist the way it is, but if we continue to have a focus on identity politics, somebody would be the boogeyman and we would be rallying around that identity. We can be rallying, we can be fighting for those liberties. But, what was Mr. Khizr Khan’s appeal? Mr. and Mrs. Khan’s appeal was: here is our Constitution, and here is our fallen soldier. It was a defense of America, it wasn’t a defense of Islam. This is an important and subtle distinction we need to make as we move forward. We’re here to defend the rights that are enshrined to us by the Constitution, as Americans.
TIM: Is this turning a new page for American Muslims? In what ways did this presidential cycle and new president create a place for American Muslims? Or did it not?
SR: Well, it certainly has elevated the conversation around Islam in American Muslims. It’s an opportunity. Whether or not we take that opportunity is going to be up to us. Whether or not we want to become the most oppressed people, which will not be a successful strategy moving forward, or whether we want to be Americans and say here are our freedoms just like everyone else? We want to make sure we’re fighting for all Americans. And, what happens with identity politics sometimes is there’s a competition [among the] oppressed: You’re more oppressed than me and if not, then unfortunately you may not receive as much attention. What we need to do is make sure we’re focusing on what our core American values are, and ensure that everyone feels as though we are in this together.
TIM: Are there certain texts or quotes that you, in moments of frustration or facing the red tape, or bureaucracy, or whatever the case is, that you go back and say this is why I’m doing it?
SR: When I’m faced with difficult times, I actually usually remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a stark reminder on a very regular basis, because we have a lot of personalities here. Politics can be difficult. But I never forget that golden rule, and try to really empathize and understand where someone is coming from before I take action or I say something.
TIM: There could be moments of you being a public servant and feeling like some people could take it as a big power trip. Other people can take it as a constant dose of humility and humbleness, that I’m only here because people voted for me, and I’m here to represent them. What’s your approach, and why?
SR: It is a power trip. When you’re running, when you’re in elected office, you’re surrounded with power. And, so every single day, you have to remind yourself why you’re here, and that people put you here for a reason. …I have to constantly remind myself and remember the people that are suffering in my district, [for example there are] 83% free and reduced lunch kids that are really [struggling] day to day. Those people are suffering and they’re counting on me to be their voice here every single day. We have to always remind ourselves that the people put us here.
TIM: What drives you day to day?
SR: The economic injustice. The lack of fairness that we have in the richest country in the world is something that hits my district pretty hard. Eighty-three percent free and reduced lunch. We have the fourth-highest Medicaid population per capita in Virginia. There are folks that are just making it, literally day to day. When I’m knocking on doors, I’m reminded constantly of the struggles that people have. And, sometimes, we realized there are so few people that are advocating on their behalf that we want to be a real solid voice for them, and that drives me on a regular basis.
TIM: How do you prove to people that you’re fighting for them despite the fact that you’re American Muslim, because unfortunately sometimes it takes that extra measure?
SR: It does, but you’d be surprised how quickly our identities evaporate when we were able to connect with people on a very personal level because we’re all really trying to chase the same dream, we are looking for the same thing, we’re raising our kids, we’re just trying to get along. And, right now we are able to show people, hey, I’m just a human being like you are, I’ve got to take care of my kids and my family just like you, how can I help you?
It’s been harder for me for sure being Muslim American, it’s been harder for me for sure being the first Muslim ever elected anything here in Virginia, but it’s actually made me into a much better person. So, the neat thing is while it’s more difficult for people like me maybe to get elected in certain parts of our country, we prove that it’s possible. And, that’s something to be commended here in our country, that people from all walks of life can be involved and that’s not the case even in some developed countries. So, we have a lot to prove and we’re at here to fight day in and day out.
*Image: Sam Rasoul being sworn in. Via Sam Rasoul YouTube .
Watch for the TIM short film on Sam Rasoul as he takes us inside his office and the house chambers.