Saturday, June 28, 2003

A Republican immigration lawyer from Falls Church is seeking to become the first Muslim to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly.

Kamal Nawash, 33, a Palestinian Arab born in Bethlehem, says he is running for state Senate because he believes he can foster understanding between Muslims, including Arabs, and other Americans.

“I just think there’s a serious gap of misunderstanding,” Mr. Nawash says. “I really believe I can do a lot to bridge the gap. This is something that inspires me.”

Mr. Nawash is running in the 31st District, which includes north Arlington, Falls Church and parts of Fairfax County.

He hopes to deny a third term to state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democrat and Presbyterian who has represented the district for eight years.

Since September 11, Muslim activists in this country increasingly have talked about the need for them to enter the political stage on the local, state and national levels to combat stereotypes and preserve civil liberties.

In Virginia’s primary elections early this month, another Muslim leader, Afeefa Syeed, director of the private Al Fatih Academy in Herndon, won the Democratic nomination to run for the Potomac seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in November.

Mr. Nawash’s only prior political experience is an unsuccessful run for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2001. At age 9, he moved with his family from Bethlehem to the United States when they settled in New Orleans.

He attended college in Louisiana, then law school in Michigan. He moved to the Washington area in 1996 with no job and no contacts. After studying for a year at American University, he was hired as the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in the District.

Mr. Nawash says his Republican affiliation reflects his personality: He is committed to fighting stereotypes, unifying parties and promoting individual responsibility and a strong work ethic.

“The initial core ideology is something I’m a strong believer in … giving people a fishing pole, not a fish,” says Mr. Nawash, who has a photograph of President Reagan hanging on his office door. “You can create your own future, if you believe it can happen. I really believe that.”

Mr. Nawash is campaigning on improving public transportation, particularly expanding Metrorail service, without raising taxes. He also advocates improving education and increasing housing and education opportunities for low-income families and immigrants.

Although he favors small government, Mr. Nawash says, “I believe there are things the government is responsible for. Education is the first priority. It should be as cheap as possible.”

He says he has received about $60,000 in campaign contributions, mostly from Arab-American groups and individuals, but is looking to expand that base of support.

His candidacy comes at a time when Arabs, even those who are not Muslims, protest what they consider unfair scrutiny from the federal government as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The government rounded up 762 foreign nationals, most of whom had violated immigration laws, to check for potential ties to terrorism.

Many Arab-Americans say they want more fellow Arabs to represent them in political office. However, ADC spokesman Hussein Ibish notes that Mr. Nawash will have to overcome questions among many voters.

“He’s going to face doubts about the loyalty of Arab-Americans to the United States. That’s a fundamental element of public service,” Mr. Ibish says. “Voters … will have to come to trust him. It might be more difficult, but when they get to know him, they’ll realize he’s an extremely patriotic and dedicated American.”

Mr. Nawash insists he doesn’t think about the role his ethnicity or religion plays in the campaign.

“It never crossed my mind,” he says. “I assume everyone is a friend.”

An estimated 3 million Arab-Americans are among the total U.S. population of more than 281 million, Mr. Ibish says. But the Arab population in Northern Virginia is relatively small compared with such areas as Dearborn, Mich., Cleveland, Houston and Orange County, Calif., he says.

According to the Census Bureau, 39,767 foreign-born residents are part of the population of 91,902 in the neighborhoods that Mr. Nawash seeks to represent in Richmond. Of those, 27,050 are unnaturalized.

“I don’t know if I could answer that question with exactitude,” Mr. Nawash says, when asked how devout a Muslim he is.

Islam calls on the faithful to pray, facing the holy city of Mecca, five times a day. Mr. Nawash says he prays, but not every day.

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