Qasim Rashid’s Uphill Battle for State Senate

He’s running to be Virginia’s first Muslim American state senator. Death threats and Islamophobia can’t keep him down.

Shabnaj Chowdhury

August 20, 2019

Qasim Rashid’s Uphill Battle for State Senate

Every day, right before the crack of dawn, Qasim Rashid wakes up at 5:00 am to pray fajr. His day concludes when he goes to bed at 11:00 pm. And on these long, summer days, he spends those hours in between canvassing, knocking on doors seven days a week. 

“Even during Ramadan, when it was 95 degrees outside and I wasn't drinking water or food for 16 hours a day, [I was] going door to door in that heat,” Rashid said. “I was drenched. I was parched. But, I was doing it because that’s what needs to be done.”

The 37-year-old human rights attorney and activist is running as a Democrat for the Virginia state senate in the 28th district, held by Republicans since 1978. He won the primaries in June, edging out social work specialist Laura Sellers (D) with 59% of the vote. He now has his sights set on the general election in November, where he’s up against incumbent Republican Richard Stuart. Rashid is running for working-class Virginians and marginalized communities. Should he win, and he’s confident that he will, he will be the first Pakistani American and first Muslim to win the state senate seat in Virginia. Nothing seems to get to Rashid, not even the death threats he receives on social media. Fittingly, his slogan is “Compassion through Action.” 

“It's easy to have compassion when somebody likes you, but the real test is when somebody is getting in your face and threatening to lynch you,” Rashid said over the phone. 

Rashid was born in Rawalpindi, a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan, near the capital Islamabad. His father is an imam and Islamic scholar, and his mother is a retired librarian. His parents, who now live in Canada, moved to Virginia in 1987 when Rashid was four years old, in part due to religious persecution. Rashid is part of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a revival movement that started in the 19th century. They are a persecuted community, prohibited from practicing their faith and sometimes even actively discriminated against in countries like Pakistan. 

Rashid wasn’t shy growing up. He was assertive, cocky even. As the middle child between an older brother and a younger brother and sister, he was always competitive, and spent a lot of time playing sports, including basketball, football, and running. 

“I was a risk-taker,” Rashid said. “I got all the scars and injuries to prove it as well,” referring to his broken collarbones, cracked knee, and the stitches he needed to get above his eyebrow. “And I was a loudmouth. In many respects, that got me in trouble, but in many respects it served me well, because it kept me pushing to try to achieve more and be more.”

As he grew older, Rashid didn’t have plans to go into politics. He studied business marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and worked pro bono at the Virginia Poverty Law Center's office of Domestic and Sexual Violence right after. While in London, he met his wife of 12 years, Ayesha. Through her encouragement, Rashid decided to enroll at the University of Richmond School of Law. There, he found his calling for human rights and servicing marginalized communities. His first job was working with the Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. “Women’s rights [are] foundational to who I am,” explained Rashid. As an attorney, he fought for human rights. As an activist, he often speaks out against Islamophobia.