You may have heard of Ibraheem Samirah by now, but there was a moment earlier this year when you almost certainly had not heard of Ibraheem Samirah. He was, back then, the newest member of the Virginia legislature as well as the youngest, a 27-year-old dentist who’d won an obscure special election in Herndon. Then President Trump came to Jamestown.
It had been about two weeks since Trump suggested that the four freshmen congresswomen known as “the Squad” “go back” to their home countries, and now Trump was in Virginia for a long-planned celebration of representative democracy’s anniversary. He had set so many garbage fires by this point in the summer that most Democrats skipped his speech for other reasons. Not Samirah.
The lawmaker smuggled in some signs joined like a Jacob’s ladder and used Trump’s apparent boredom with the day’s topic to create the backdrop for maximum virality. “Virginia Man Disrupts President’s Speech.” That guy.
After political journalists on Twitter identified the freshman Democrat, TV chyrons lit up, pundits feasted, and politicians—on both sides of the aisle—pounced. Virginia Senate majority leader Tommy Norment called his colleague an “ill-advised little bastard.” House speaker Kirk Cox said Samirah’s actions were “inconsistent with common decency.” Elaine Luria, the congresswoman from Tidewater and a fellow Democrat, tut-tutted: “I would have liked to see a little more decorum.”
“I can’t make a post about health care without someone telling me, ‘you’re not American. Go back home.'”
But for a new state pol with no name recognition, the stunt was worth far more than any ticket from the etiquette police for violating the so-called Virginia Way, the unwritten state political tradition of comity and gentility. Samirah netted thousands of Twitter followers and an audience beyond the Beltway. On MSNBC that evening, he explained himself. “What would happen if we allowed Trump to just come and energize his base here in Virginia,” he asked, “when we have an election in 2019?”
Three months later, that election is upon us and Samirah is taking his show out on the state roads. His own deep-blue seat along the border of Fairfax and Loudoun counties is safe—he’s unopposed. So he’s stumping for other candidates instead as the Democrats try to finally take over the legislature. Despite various scandals that have sandbagged top state leaders, the party is optimistic. Trump is unpopular in the Old Dominion. The Virginia GOP has moved right even as changing demographics push the state more solidly into the Dems’ column. All of which makes Samirah an intriguing surrogate. He’s a visitor from a younger, browner—and much less demure—future. But he’s campaigning in a state whose self-conception still doesn’t look or sound much like the loudmouthed guy in a bow tie who stank up a Trump speech by shouting, “You can’t send us back—Virginia is our home!”
Samirah’s political coming-of-age began, in a sense, almost 17 years ago in Chicago, when the US government forced his own father to go back where he came from. Both his parents are children of Palestinian refugees. His mother, Sima Srouri, taught at an Islamic school in an area of Chicago known as Little Palestine. His dad, Sabri Samirah, had come to the US from Jordan to study economics and public policy, then found his real calling in activism, becoming a community leader and registering Muslim voters. But after 9/11, Sabri was detained on an overseas trip and prohibited from returning to America. Federal authorities implied he was a national-security risk, without explaining why.
It was a big news story in Chicago. Samirah remembers watching his 11-year-old self on the evening news looking lost. “I don’t know what the hell just happened,” he says. He was playing middle-school basketball and had his first crush on a classmate. Now he’d probably have to leave the country.
Exiled to Amman, the family lived with Samirah’s grandparents. His Arabic wasn’t great, and he spoke with a thick American accent: “It was a very depressing time for at least two years.” When it came time for college, though, he found a path home: American University, he says, offered him a full scholarship to study political science.
Samirah had wanted to become a dentist ever since visiting a friend of his father’s in America with a trampoline in his yard, but he figured he could study medicine in grad school and packed his bags for DC. Installed at AU, he again found himself between cultures. “It becomes a way of life,” he says. “In every situation, I’m the outsider’s insider and the insider’s outsider.” As an observant Muslim, he avoided alcohol, and the joke among friends was “Ibraheem will have a lemonade,” says Josh Michaels, who befriended him as a sophomore. Samirah was picked for the School of Public Affairs’ leadership program, an academic on-ramp to US politics, but was kicked out in his second semester. (Margaret Marr, who ran the program at the time, declined to discuss his dismissal, citing educational privacy law. Samirah says she told him he just wasn’t keeping up.) “That’s where I began to be a lot more entrepreneurial in my politics,” he says.
He’d already joined Sigma Alpha Mu, a historically Jewish fraternity he says he thought would be a good way to understand a side of America that “was attached to my identity in this weird way.” He also helped found a campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which entailed holding vigils and staffing booths at campus events, plus a protest against SodaStream, which used to have a factory in the West Bank, in front of the Tenleytown Best Buy. “I never believed him that he wanted to be a dentist,” says Michaels, his college friend. “He was so passionate about activism and politics.”
In 2013, Samirah enrolled in dental school at Boston University—and began getting his name in news accounts for political stunts that were even more, as he might put it, entrepreneurial. He and some friends were booted from a Bernie Sanders rally in Boston after hoisting a banner that read WILL YA FEEL THE BERN FOR PALESTINE?, a decision for which the campaign later apologized. In 2016, a year before he graduated, he dumped water on Geraldo Rivera during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Samirah moved back to Washington and began practicing dentistry. But politics kept getting in the way of root canals. After reading about Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian American “Squad” member then running in the 2018 midterms, Samirah impulsively drove to Detroit and volunteered for her campaign. He went to mosques to talk her up and urge Muslims to vote, a task he says he later repeated in Virginia for state senator Jennifer Wexton, the Democrat who was campaigning to oust Samirah’s congresswoman, Barbara Comstock. After Wexton won, the state delegate for Samirah’s district sought her old seat in the state senate. Which in turn left the delegate job wide open. Samirah decided he’d go for it himself.
The first step in the special election was a primary—a primary featuring the head of the Fairfax NAACP and the former mayor of Herndon, two people much farther up the state’s political pecking order than a twentysomething dentist who lived with his mom. Samirah was going to need more than a quirky flier of himself in a lab coat saying floss, then vote. So Samirah, who’d dabbled in cryptocurrency, took a kind of Moneyball approach. He and his campaign manager, an AU undergrad named Evan Torma-Rookley, scraped voter rolls for Arab-sounding names and knocked on as many doors as they could. It worked: He won with 35 percent of the vote.
In theory, Samirah should have had the general election locked down—Hillary Clinton had taken the district by more than 30 points in 2016. But then in early February, just before the polls opened, the conservative website Big League Politics, which had fired a succession of flaming oil drums into Virginia politics—including the blackface photo on Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page—dug up some of Samirah’s Facebook posts from dental school. “Hell is excited to have you,” he had written on the occasion of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s death. In another, Samirah intimated that supporting Israel was worse than supporting the KKK.
Samirah quickly apologized, but some Virginia Democrats distanced themselves. By the time the polls closed, he was the insider’s outsider all over again: Samirah spanked his Republican opponent, earning nearly 60 percent of the vote, and publicly shamed his party for abandoning him. Democrats “succumbed to the extreme-right propaganda machine,” he told the Washington Post at his victory party. “They succumbed to fear.”
More than six months later, it still rankles him that his old social-media posts became an issue at all. “Not one single Jewish organization said I was anti-Semitic,” he says. “I’m sincerely sorry for hurting people’s feelings. But the truth is, truth sometimes hurts.”
Samirah arrived in Richmond too late to wield any real influence before this year’s session ended. That didn’t mean the state’s second Muslim legislator ever was exactly invisible. At his first town hall in Herndon, a group of protesters asked the lawmaker how he planned to implement Sharia law. Not long after, the conservative Washington Free Beacon published an article alleging that he and his father had connections to organizations that in turn had connections to Hamas, later calling Samirah “anti-Semitic.” His short stint volunteering for Tlaib, meanwhile, was called out online—a grip-and-grin of the two circulated like some smoking-gun evidence of religious, left-wing conspiracy.
So when, barely two months later, Trump tweeted that Tlaib and her Squad should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” it felt to Samirah like something far more dangerous than dynamic tolling on I-66. “I can’t make a [social-media] post about reducing health-care costs,” he says, “without somebody telling me, ‘You’re not American. Go back home.’ ” With Trump due to visit Jamestown, Samirah wasn’t going to stay home. Not after the ten years he’d spent learning how to get attention.
In the weeks that followed his protest, Samirah wouldn’t give up the mike. This was now a branding opportunity for a young activist just a few years removed from dumping water on a B-list Fox News personality. First, he wrote an op-ed in the Atlantic slamming the Virginia Way, arguing that civil discourse was no way to counter uncivil discourse. When the Roanoke Times editorial board solemnly objected, Samirah volleyed. A few weeks later, he tried to launch a Twitter spat with Luria, the Democratic congresswoman who’d criticized him. (She didn’t take the bait.)
If this were presidential politics, that micro-aggression might have been barely noticeable in the Kabuki theater of political Twitter. Democrats nationwide are arguing about whether their path back to power involves low-key geniality or high-profile aggression. But this is the Old Dominion, where show horses are best kept on the undulating farms of Middleburg.
“What does any of this have to do with the 86th District of the Virginia House of Delegates?” I ask Samirah one morning in his office in Herndon.
Samirah gets up to fetch something from a drawer of his desk, which has a big plastic tooth on top. Herndon is the type of outer suburb that many Republicans fear is slipping away. Samirah says the number of hate has no home here signs he’d seen in yards around his town played into his decision to be the disrupter in Jamestown. But while many of his constituents appeared to support their representative when he sought the spotlight, the incident also drew a slew of negative feedback, mostly from people outside the area. From the drawer, Samirah pulls out what he says was “the dirtiest piece of mail” he received: a card from a group called Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, alerting him that someone had made a donation in his “memory.”
Nationalism, the way Samirah sees it, “is going to come after everybody.” It’s what pushed his ancestors out of Palestine, what sent his father packing from America, what causes partisans to accuse a US-born legislator of advocating Sharia law. (By the way, his father was allowed back into the US after 2010.) It’s an argument that resonates: Forty-one percent of Herndon’s residents were born outside the US. Statewide, nearly 13 percent of Virginians are foreign-born, a number that keeps going up.
Still, even if mouthing off to Trump is just dandy in Northern Virginia, how does Ibraheem Samirah help Democrats take over the state? “I think a lot of Democrats would be happiest if this story faded from public memory,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington professor who closely watches Virginia politics. “It’s not the sort of thing that endears the party to voters in competitive districts.”
But maybe that’s an old, Virginia Way mode of thinking, out of step with a newer tactical approach: goosing turnout, a Samirah specialty. “We engaged people who aren’t normally engaged,” says his former campaign manager, Torma-Rookley, when asked how they won earlier this year. Says Samirah: “The way I see it is that the majority of voters are disenfranchised. I’m always thinking, ‘How do I bring those people into the fold?’ ”
Samirah recently appeared alongside Khizr Khan, the Muslim Gold Star father Trump attacked in 2016, to support Richmond’s Ghazala Hashmi, an immigrant from India trying to become the first Muslim American woman in the state senate. He says he’s equally happy stumping in districts where “it’s not people of my background that are running.” Now 28, he’s become a good soldier. But that doesn’t mean new stunts are off the table in the future. Trump’s “go back” comments were a wake-up call to Democrats, Samirah says: “If you’re not going to do it, somebody like me, who’s going to be probably the first to go, is going to do it.”
This article has been updated to clarify that Samirah’s father was allowed to return to the US and to correctly state the name of Jewish Voice for Peace.
This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Washingtonian.