WASHINGTON – Omar Qudrat, a former Department of Defense prosecutor whose parents immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in the 1970s, is running for Congress in California's 52nd District. He is hoping to oust Democratic incumbent Scott Peters – and set a historical precedent by becoming the first-ever Muslim American to be elected to Congress as a Republican. (Previously, two Muslim Americans were elected on behalf of the Democratic Party.)
"This isn't about my religion – I’m running to be a member of Congress, not a cleric," Qudrat told Haaretz in an interview this week. "I'm focused on issues, not identity, but people do ask me about it quite a lot. To the extent that it sends a positive message about America, I'll discuss it."
Qudrat, 36, was also happy to discuss his war experiences, policy ideas and support for Israel during the interview. Indeed, he will be in Washington this week to attend the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.
"Israel is a strong and important ally," he says. His position paper on the subject highlights the importance of securing a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but also calls on the Palestinian Authority to stop paying stipends to convicted terrorists and their families, and to regain control of Gaza from Hamas. He also strongly opposes the Iran nuclear deal.
"I look at Israel through the lens of American national security interests," Qudrat explains. "It's a country that shares many common enemies with us, and is part of the broader fight between the forces of humanity and the forces of hate and extremism. We need to work together."
If he wins the Republican primary in June and then the midterm in November, he says, "that's one of the messages I will bring with me to Washington."
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Qudrat was born in 1981, in what he describes as "a gang-infested neighborhood" in the Los Angeles area, after his parents moved to the United States a decade earlier.
"It was all about the American dream for them: work, home ownership and education," Qudrat says of his parents. "The neighborhood where they settled wasn't an easy one. The public schools I went to were places of failure. But my parents insisted that education solves 90 percent of the problems in life. They believed in the basics: invest in school, get good grades, go to college. That made a huge difference in the trajectory of my life."
After high school, Qudrat got his B.A. at UCLA and then studied for a law degree at Syracuse University, where he also obtained master's degrees in international relations and public relations.
His qualifications led to a number of job opportunities in the private sector, but Qudrat instead chose to embark on a different path – one that led him to the homeland his parents had left decades earlier.
Qudrat joined the Department of Defense in 2010 and was sent to Afghanistan, where he was stationed at the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.
His official role was deputy chief of rule of law, formulating and implementing strategy to improve Afghanistan’s judicial system (as part of the United States' counterinsurgency plan).
"Up until the 9/11 attacks, the only things I knew about Afghanistan came from conversations with my parents, who would tell me about the country," recounts Qudrat. “When the attacks took place, and then the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, I was confused. I was trying to understand how my heritage could have anything to do with this monstrous event. There was a very strong dissonance between the stories I heard from my parents and the events I was watching on television."
When he arrived in Afghanistan, Qudrat quickly understood the true connection between the stories of the past and the events of the time.
"I visited the town of Jalalabad – on the border with Pakistan – which on the one hand is where my mother's family used to own a home, and on the other is where Osama bin Laden used to take meetings as he was plotting his terror attacks. And I realized that what was truly going on is a competition for the Afghan people's hearts and minds. A competition between moderate forces and extremists like the Taliban and Al-Qaida."
His own work to try to strengthen the legal system in Afghanistan was part of that struggle, Qudrat says. "The counterterrorism strategy led by Gen. David Petraeus at the time was based on his understanding that we are competing with the Taliban for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
“He understood that if the Taliban are able to attack the Afghan government for corruption, and to convince the people that there is no justice in their legal system, then we will lose those people," Qudrat notes, adding that government corruption was also a major problem in the Asian country.
After 18 months in Afghanistan, Qudrat was dispatched to Washington as part of a team that was responsible for prosecuting terrorists from Al-Qaida and other terror groups. As a member of Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins' team, Qudrat was back on U.S. soil, but once again found himself working on issues related to Afghanistan.
"For my parents, it was a bit strange," he admits. "They had come all the way to America looking for a better life – and here I was, trying to help with the problems of the country they left behind. My mother was worried while I was there, and was happy that I got back. But they understood what I was doing."
The terrorists his team put on trial "were the people who had used and destroyed Afghanistan,” says Qudrat. “It allowed me to see with my own eyes how terror networks operate. They come into a country, use it as a base for their attacks, provoke a conflict, create human misery, and then move onto the next place. When we were putting these people to trial, seeking justice in the name of America, I felt proud," he says.
His next assignment – and his last before he decided to run for office – was on detail to the State Department, where he was charged with finding foreign countries willing to prosecute detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. "The approach was: Let's not let them walk,” explains Qudrat. “If there was a country they had attacked, threatened or plotted against, let's see if they can face trial there."
The role involved a lot of international travel, including a visit to Israel – though he says he can’t reveal the exact subject that brought him there. "I enjoyed going for a run on the beach in Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem left the strongest impression on me," Qudrat recalls. "I felt that the Old City is a magical place."
Overall, however, Qudrat’s years spent working for the state left a bad impression. "My reverence for many public officials was gone when I saw how decisions were being made in Washington,” he says. “Political considerations came before national security ones. I saw year after year how young Americans were being killed in Afghanistan and brought home in flag-draped caskets, while the government wasn't doing what's necessary to address the source of the problem. It's truly shameful.”
The mishandling of the war in Afghanistan was just one of the issues that pushed him to run for office. "Another big problem is our methods for dealing with attacks inspired by ISIS on our homeland. We need to find a better solution," he opines.
Currently an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, Qudrat also wants to focus on how veterans are treated in America: "We have a domestic humanitarian crisis; I think that's how we need to define it. It's a character question for our country – and so far, we're failing our veterans."
After Qudrat finishes explaining his policy positions, I tell him that it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: The fact that he, a Muslim American, is running as a Republican in the era of Donald Trump. After all, this is a president who has famously called for a ban on Muslim immigration into the United States and shared racist comments about Muslims on his Twitter account.
Qudrat responds that if he disagrees with something Trump says, he will not hesitate to say so. “My approach is country over party – not as a slogan, but as an actual way of life,” he explains. “I grew up in a gang-controlled area, and I'm against gang culture. I'm against expecting people to have gang loyalty in politics. We need to hold our elected officials accountable and to judge them for their actions – doesn’t matter what gang or party they belong to."
At the same time, he says, "We need to separate what Trump is saying from what he's doing. I want to focus the conversation on what he's doing, not what he puts on social media. There are things he's saying that I for sure can't support – but I think his actions have a greater impact. If unemployment is going down, the military is getting stronger and our GDP is growing, that's what we should focus on. But when I will disagree with any politician, including the president, I'll clearly say so."
The California district Qudrat is running in (in San Diego County) gave Hillary Clinton 58 percent of its votes in the 2016 presidential election. And Peters, the incumbent Democrat since 2013, received 56 percent of the vote in the 2016 congressional election. Nevertheless, despite those numbers, Qudrat is optimistic about unseating Peters.
"I want a new generation of Americans to jump right in and no longer accept the kind of leaders that have failed us," he says. "People who go on television and talk with confidence, but in reality aren't qualified to solve our problems."
He admits, though, that his candidacy is “confusing a lot of people. I could be targeted by both white supremacists and Islamist terror networks at the same time, because I disrupt the extremists' narratives,” he observes. “I really wish that, over time, people won't find any of that confusing. I want them to think it's totally normal to have someone like me."
His Republican affiliation, he says, has its roots in his L.A. childhood, growing up "in an area where there were no Republicans to blame, because every elected official – from the school board, through the mayor, all the way to the governor and the senators – was a Democrat. And yet there were high levels of poverty, the schools were failing, there was a homelessness crisis, and those who are worst off, didn’t get any better.
“I lived through the failed policies that I'm going to fight against in Washington," he concludes.