In March, President Joe Biden announced he would nominate Zahid Quraishi, a magistrate judge in New Jersey since 2019, to join the United States District Court for New Jersey, a post that would make him the first Muslim federal judge in America. Presented as part of an effort to make the federal judiciary reflect the “full diversity of the American people,” Quraishi’s nomination has earned some plaudits and the endorsement of several state legal groups, including the Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association of New Jersey and the South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey.
But privately, some Muslim Americans—including lawyers, elected officials, and political operatives—are arguing among themselves about the choice. Many are hostile to it. They say the Biden administration sidestepped many Muslim American civil rights organizations to nominate Quraishi, and that many of his legal positions are unknown. Most troublingly to them, they point to his résumé, specifically his past work as a lawyer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and, while serving in the military during the Iraq war, as a “detention advisor” while deployed.
“I believe it’s the wrong guy,” said one Muslim former elected official in New Jersey, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity of the nomination. “Ask any African American how happy they are about Clarence Thomas. It’s a very similar perspective at a bunch of different levels,” he said.
The official said the arguments and anger about Quraishi’s nomination are happening in private because many involved are elected officials or part of larger organizations that do not want to publicly oppose the Biden administration. Several of them told me they plan to closely watch Quraishi’s Senate confirmation hearing, set for Wednesday, for more answers about his legal record.
“We don’t know what his stances are on civil rights because you can’t find one article or anything that he’s written publicly about the Muslim struggle in the last 20 years post-9/11,” the former elected official told me. “If I’m supposed to be happy for somebody, then he should have an affinity for the same things that I believe in.”
Reached by Slate, Quraishi referred all questions about his legal history to the White House. A White House spokesperson said that “President Biden is deeply proud to have nominated Judge Quraishi,” adding, “This is a historic nominee whom we hope will be confirmed quickly.”
Quraishi, born in New York in 1975, graduated from Rutgers Law School–Newark in 2000. He joined the Army in 2003, where he became a captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He has since worked in various public and private sector roles, but a few line items on his résumé have drawn the most scrutiny: Among several positions in the military, he lists “Detention Operations Legal Advisor to Brigade Commander,” a role that has raised alarm among Muslim lawyers and advocates. He also listed his work for the Department of Homeland Security, and ICE specifically, as assistant chief counsel from 2007 to 2008.
Zahra Billoo, a civil rights lawyer and the executive director for Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco, said too much was unknown about Quraishi. “Just because somebody is a Muslim doesn’t mean that they automatically get our endorsement. We need answers,” she said. “I think our community needs to be asking those questions, and they’re not getting answered.”
Billoo said that when Quraishi’s résumé began making the rounds among Muslim lawyers and advocates, she began to ask the questions herself. “He joined the military after 9/11, after that Iraq war began,” she told me. “This was at a time when Abu Ghraib was open. The government was suggesting the law didn’t matter, that they were above the law. So was he advising them on how to skirt the law? What was he doing? It’s just a gaping hole. We don’t know.”
A Muslim former Biden staffer and lawyer, who spoke on the condition he not be named because of professional concerns, raised similar objections. “He was a JAG attorney who oversaw detention policy in Iraq during the time of Abu Ghraib in the Iraq war,” he said. “We don’t know what he said. He could have given good legal opinions or bad ones. The problem is that we don’t know.” If Quraishi did defend the extralegal detention practices of the time, he said, that is grounds to reject him: “That’s who we’re going to put up as the first Muslim Article 3 judge? That’s a really big deal.”
A source close to the White House’s confirmation process who would not speak for attribution said that Quraishi “had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib or enhanced interrogation.” The source did not say what his military legal role did entail. As for ICE, the source said Quraishi represented the U.S. in immigration court for political asylum cases, a role that involves arguing the government’s position in various immigration cases.
The former Biden staffer said the problem goes deeper than specific questions about Quraishi’s résumé. “Where did this guy come from? And what was the decision-making process?” he said. “In Muslim legal circles right now, this is a really big deal because we can list 20 to 50 Muslims who have been in the fight who probably would be better nominees than this one.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey reportedly recommended Quraishi to the Biden administration. “Zahid Quraishi is a smart, experienced, and thoughtful attorney who will bring an exceptional commitment to fairness and impartiality to the bench,” Booker said in an email in response to questions about the nomination. “His skills, experience, and unique perspective is needed on the federal bench now more than ever.”
Other prominent Muslim lawyers in New Jersey vouched for the nomination. “Not only is Judge Quraishi a skilled litigator who will bring expertise to the bench, he will also bring much needed diversity of background and perspective to the federal judiciary. We are proud to support his nomination,” wrote Faudia A. Hameed Clemenza, chair of the New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee.
But several lawyers and advocates I spoke to said the nomination process excluded Muslim organizations committed to civil rights and instead relied on select Muslim groups that are major Democratic donors and have “no track record in human rights and no experience in picking judges,” as the former Biden staffer put it. He provided a list of other advocacy organizations that weren’t consulted in the process, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group. He said many felt blindsided by the nomination and the circumstances around it, which have fueled discontent among many in the Muslim legal world.
Others said the silence on the specifics of Quraishi’s legal record and official lines about the “historic” nature of the nomination amounted to tokenization. “I would much rather have a white Christian judge with progressive values,” Billoo said. “It’s not enough that he is Muslim. In fact, it’s insulting.
“We need to be careful to not let tokenization drive our perspective here,” Billoo added. “There are some grave human rights violations that have happened on America’s watch over and over again for many, many years. The extent that it’s possible he participated in some of them, or gave legal advice to some of them, we want to know.”
Correction, April 28, 2021: This article originally misattributed a quote from Faudia A. Hameed Clemenza to Dalya Youssef.