Although Bush won roughly 45% of the Arab American vote in 2000, representatives for several of the largest Arab American political organisations say this may not be the case next time around.
They add that the administration’s policies on Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and domestic civil liberties are stirring resentment and discontent in their community.
“The majority of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans feel that President Bush hasn’t been speaking their language and probably are going to opt for a change,” said Laila al-Qatami, a Washington spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Despite helping him win one of the closest presidential elections in US history, many Arab Americans feel that Bush turned his back on their community once in office, according to Richard Curtiss, the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a bi-monthly political magazine.
“Most [Arab Americans] are fed up with Bush because they feel totally betrayed,” Curtiss said.
Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, said the president was sympathetic to the concerns of Arab Americans and would fight to maintain their support.
“We’re honoured and we’re proud of the support we had the last time around in this community and we intend to work very hard to keep that support,” Castillo said.
Though the Republican Party received significant support from Arab Americans in the past, al-Qatami said measures such as the USA Patriot Act, which gives federal law enforcement agencies greater power to monitor the activities of private citizens and immigrants, had left many in the community feeling as though they were government targets.
“There are certain things that we’ve been adversely affected by,” she continued.
Compounding the anger over the Patriot Act were the widespread arrests, detentions and government harassment of Arab immigrants in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
“The majority of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans feel that President Bush hasn’t been speaking their language and probably are going to opt for a change”
While it is unclear how many Arab Americans were directly affected by these security crackdowns, they, nevertheless, created frustration of a very personal nature, al-Qatami said.
“A lot of Arab Americans are citizens of the United States, but have family members from other countries who are affected by this,” she added.
While she declined to address specific laws like the Patriot Act, Castillo dismissed the notion that any of the administration’s national security policies were aimed at certain ethnic groups.
“We’re fighting against those forces [terrorists] and not against any community or religion or any group of people,” she said.
But the disenchantment lies in non-domestic issues as well, with a Bush administration foreign policy that the director of one Arab American advocacy group called “sickening”.
Middle East impact
Not all Arab Americans disagree with US actions in Iraq or with the administration’s handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but most do, according to Usama Siblani, president of the Arab American Political Action Committee in Dearborn, Michigan.
“If you take a poll right now among the Arab American community, you’ll find that they’re significantly opposed to the war [in Iraq],” said Siblani.
Together with the belief that the Bush team is consistently biased in its support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his security policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, Siblani said Arab Americans were more inclined to think that Bush’s foreign policy decisions were taking the country in the wrong direction.
“I’m telling you right now this community is very angry,” he said. “This country is hated everywhere and anti-Americanism is on the rise.”
Siblani said he was not criticising the president for partisan political reasons, having endorsed Bush in 2000.
Back then, Siblani saw what he perceived to be a sincere dedication to the issue of civil liberties and a humble approach to foreign policy. But things were not always as they appeared, he said.
“… the Arab American vote is by no means a decisive vote, nor does it ever pretend to become one, it is a factor in American politics today”
Dr James Zogby,
“I do not see where the humility is in this administration,” he said. “In fact, I see it as very arrogant.”
All this could very well impact the minds of Arab American voters this time next year.
While Bush won 45% of the Arab American votes in 2000, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), if the election was held today he would probably get about 35%, AAI President James Zogby said.
The reduced backing is a small drop that could potentially make a difference in a close election.
Despite talk that Arab American voters are angry with the president, Zogby is adamant when he says Arab Americans are not a “voting block,” but rather a diverse community with wide-ranging political viewpoints.
Speaking recently at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, Zogby said “we have a portion of our community that is philosophically Democrat and a portion of our community that is philosophically Republican and another third that still does not yet have a strong party ID.”
Those in the latter category tend to be immigrants who have yet to latch fully onto the American two-party system and who are more singularly focused in their political priorities, he said.
“Recent immigrants tend to be more fluid in their vote and logically tend, as one would expect with recent immigrants, to focus more on the issues of the Middle East where they’ve come from,” he said.
Bush policies towards Palestinian-
Zogby added that the Middle East is a critical issue to Arab Americans, as it should be to all Americans, but it is not the only area of concern.
“It may be the most important issue but it’s not the sole-determining issue,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Arab Americans are just as likely to vote with their pocket books as are millions of other voters in the country, he said. Some may dislike the president’s Middle East policies while supporting his propensity towards tax cuts.
Indeed, Castillo said the president’s economic stewardship, as well as his plans for improving schools and various social programs, would likely win over Arab American voters.
“The truth of the matter is that Arab Americans are as concerned with education and with expanding their businesses as are other Americans,” she said.
While there is disagreement over whether Arab Americans will vote as a block, the consensus is that the community is gaining more political recognition as a constituency.
That was clearly the case last month when the AAI sponsored a forum in Dearborn, Michigan, at which seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates addressed a largely Arab American audience.
Talking about the experience at the MEI conference, Zogby said the willingness of so many prominent Democrats to address the community was a clear sign of progress.
“There is an awareness today that [politicians] have Arab constituents and that while the Arab American vote is by no means a decisive vote, nor does it ever pretend to become one, it is a factor in American politics today,” he said.
In the race to become president, candidates focus on battleground states with a large number of electoral votes. Several of those states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, contain the highest concentration of Arab American voters, Zogby said.
“It’s going to be a community that votes according to the best interests of this country”
“That’s where our vote counts,” he added.
Siblani said he believed that Michigan, with 400,000 of the roughly 3.5 million Arab Americans, would set the tone for the election.
“When Michigan leads, Arab Americans outside of this state follow,” he said.
But will they follow the Democrats or Republicans? Siblani said issues and not political parties would determine the answer to that question.
“I do not think that this community is going to be a Democratic or Republican voting block,” he said. “It’s going to be a community that votes according to the best interests of this country.”