Arab-Americans look for change

The small number of US Arab voters could be crucial in November's vote.

    Activists have been encouraging Arab-Americans to use their vote [GALLO/GETTY] 

    The United States's 3.5 million Arab-Americans represent a tiny sliver of the US electorate, but they could still affect the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

    The diverse Arab-Americans community is concentrated in some of the country's most evenly divided states, including Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

    And it is the Democrats who have the most to gain as traditionally Republican Arab-American voters, disillusioned by the Bush administration's policies, have begun leaning towards their party.

    Now, community groups hope to use this solidarity to build a voting bloc that could increase their political weight. 

    Ideological shift

    Analysts say the shift to voting Democrat is a national trend that began in 2002, following growing frustration with the Bush administration's unpopular domestic and foreign policies.

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    "We saw that in the elections in 2004, we saw it again in the elections in 2006 and - if all holds as we're seeing it play out right now - we would most probably see it play out in 2008," says Dr James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab-American Institute (AAI).

    And Zogby is not alone in noticing this trend.

    "Arab and Muslim voters historically were more Republican," says Peter Beinart, senior fellow on US foreign policy at the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR).

    "We will now see a big sea change in which Democrats would win the overwhelming majority of those votes."

    'Erosion' of rights

    After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Arab-American community became increasingly concerned at the backlash against them, as issues of racial profiling, discrimination and intimidation took a heavy toll on Republican support.

    Data from the Zogby International polling firm shows that in 2000, 40 per cent of Arab-Americans identified themselves as Democrats and 38 per cent identified as Republicans.

    Today, 39 per cent say they are Democrats and only 26 per cent call themselves Republicans.

    Abed Hammoud, one of the founders of the Arab-American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) told Al Jazeera that Arab-Americans felt "threatened".

    Hammoud, who is from Detroit, where Arabs constitute more than one third of the city's population, said: "We want America to fight terrorism - let's be clear about that," he says.

    "But it's the way this issue has been handled since Bush has been in power that it has resulted in the erosion of our civil rights."

    "If you see how the public opinion, the media and the American government have changed their approach to Arab and Muslims since 2001, it's scary."

    Anger at discrimination

    Sam Ibrahim, a member of the Arab-Americans for Barack Obama group on Facebook, agrees, saying he believes Obama will be more sensitive to the plight of ethnic, racial and religious minorities in America.

    "I fear as a Muslim-American that, because of who I am, I will be a target of discrimination," he says.


    If you see how public opinion, the media and the US government have changed their approach to Arab and Muslims since 2001, it's scary

    "Because of this I would gravitate more towards a candidate [who] would respect human rights and uphold the American constitution much more than the current government has."

    Three-quarters of the US Arab-American electorate is Christian, but they nonetheless share Arab-Muslim concerns on racial profiling, the war in Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
    "There's a sort of communal sense that has emerged that this discrimination isn't acceptable," says Zogby.

    "The image of the Arab is one that ought to be treated more respectfully and even amongst Christians [there is] a sense that Islam ought to be treated better."

    Foreign policy

    Hammoud adds that despite any criticism Arab-Americans may voice against the Bush administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, civil rights remain at the forefront of their concerns.

    "We do care about foreign policy but people think that's the only issue we care about," Hammoud says.

    "I still think how are we going to be looked at here is our overriding concern."

    But some Arab-American activists say that recent Arab immigrants to the US react more to foreign policy issues because many have personal ties to the region. 
    "We have Arab-Americans who have been here since the 1860s," says Marwan Kreidie, President of the Philadelphia Association of Arab Americans,

    "For them it's not as a salient issue as it is with Arabs who have come here three years ago or two years ago."

    The Obama effect

    Barack Obama is the top choice for many 
    Arab-Americans [AFP]
    According to the Arab-American Institute (AAI), the leading candidate among Arab-Americans voters is Barack Obama, who would be the nation's first African-American president if successful.

    "Like a lot of Americans they see in him a sign of hope," Zogby says.

    "In 2004 a lot of people, activists in the community, remembered his speech at the Democratic convention, [where] he spoke about Arab-Americans ... and mentioned their pain of discrimination and it was part of the centre of his speech," Zogby says.

    "Since 2002, the turn against Republicans has been so dramatic that any Democratic would do well. But he does extra well because he has a message that resonates."

    Kreidie also thinks Arab-Americans in Philadelphia are most likely to vote for Obama.

    "I think the fact that we always looked at ourselves as a minority end and having a minority like Obama is something people like. His fresh views on the Iraq war, all these combinations make him exciting."

    Encouraging turnout

    A big concern now for activists is mobilising the Arab-American community and ensuring that people show up at the polls.

    In an attempt to ensure a strong turnout, community leaders are going to great lengths to better explain the voting process and work to educate those who have grown apathetic.

    Statistics show that in the past three elections, the Arab-American turnout was actually higher than the country as a whole - by almost 20 per cent.

    But as one Arab-American voter from Iowa told Al Jazeera, Arab-Americans will go to the polls as voters first, a minority group second.

    "At the end of the day, I don't want to be a token or a minority but someone who can sit at the table and get his answers."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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