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The Double-Whammy and the 50-50 Balance

Second- and third-generation Arab-Americans, many of them Christians who previously had little affinity for their ethnic roots, now find themselves under siege by the Bush administration -- and are fighting back in a united way.
Talking differently to united Arab-Americans
Daily Star, Lebanon, December 29, 2003

The very sense of isolation and alienation felt by Arab-Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has turned that diverse series of communities into a political force to be reckoned with. "9/11 is a wakeup call for all Arab-Americans to vote and take part in the American system," said Nafa Khalaf, a Detroit businessman. "Unity has become more important for us to show that we have weight in the political arena."

That feeling of empowerment was, for example, thick in the air last October at the national conference of the Arab American Institute (AAI), the main Arab-American political lobby. It was evident in the back-to-back interviews AAI president James Zogby then gave to everyone from local Detroit television stations to the New York Times. And it was most vividly reflected in the lineup of Democratic presidential contenders crowding the conference agenda.

"That American flag over there belongs to every American not only to John Ashcroft, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson," former Vermont Governor and now leading Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean told the gathering, in the kind of message of inclusiveness that drew rousing applause for each of the candidates as they reached out to a community that feels it has been isolated by President George W. Bush's White House.

Speaking by satellite link from Washington, where he was taking part in a Senate vote on the Iraq rebuilding package, Senator John Edwards made sure everyone in the audience knew he had called Zogby on Sept. 12, 2001, to tell the then-besieged Arab-American leader that "if there is anything my family or I can do," he should not hesitate to call. An ailing General Wesley Clark, who had been hospitalized with flu the day before, sent an Arab-American former US ambassador to Morocco, Ed Gabriel, to read a speech that hit all the right buttons by calling for a concerted, "evenhanded" effort to achieve Middle East peace and condemning "oppressive policies" that classify "a whole people as a threat."

Driving home the importance of the Arab vote in the upcoming primaries, Senator Richard Gephardt decided to forgo a satellite link-up in favor of jumping on a plane once the Senate Iraq appropriations vote was finished and jetting to the Dearborn conference in time to address that evening's gala dinner.

"Ten years ago, no politician paid any attention to the Arab-American community," said Wally Jaddan of TV Orient, a US-based satellite TV service. "If we sent them money, they'd send it back. Today every politician running for any office looks to the Arab-American community because they realize we have the votes and the money."

Conventional wisdom in Washington has always held that one reason US policy in the Middle East has been heavily skewed toward Israel is that Israel's supporters vote as a block and the Arabs do not. As 2003 ends, however, it is increasingly possible the story may be very different in 2004. The shift in attitudes toward Arab-Americans did not come overnight, nor was it solely the result of Sept. 11. Years of grassroots organization, including major voter registration drives, slowly brought Arab-Americans into the mainstream of the American political process. Still, it was Sept. 11 and the Bush administration's policies since then that brought them together as a political force. That was evident in the tepid applause and hostile questions that greeted a representative of the Bush campaign at the Dearborn conference.

If their cousins in the Middle East are angry with the Bush White House for plunging a dagger into the heart of the Arab world, Arab-Americans living in the US are outraged by the loss of civil liberties in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the administration's policies toward the Middle East and Muslim world. Second- and third-generation Arab-Americans, many of them Christians who previously had little affinity for their ethnic roots, now find themselves under siege, and are fighting back in a united way. This has had politicians from presidential contenders to mayoral candidates treating Arab-American voters with newfound respect.

"When your numbers add up, people talk to you differently," noted Zogby during the October conference, with evident pleasure in his voice. "It's a 50-50 country today," remarked his brother, well-known pollster John Zogby, in describing the Republican-Democratic division. "Anything that moves votes by a few hundred or a few thousand looms very, very large. So you see people paying attention to an organization that gets voters out. We can be that important."

But while newfound political confidence may be tangible at the grassroots level of Arab-American groups, there is also a darker undercurrent lurking in the shadows. After I completed an interview with one Massachusetts businessman at the time of the AAI conference, I asked for his business card. "Why do you want it?" he demanded, recoiling. "What are you going to do with it, put me on some list?" His companion explained: "We're all Americans, we love this country, a lot of us are defending this country, and we feel threatened by this country at this point ... Sept. 11 was a double-whammy on the Arab community. Not only our country got hit, we're getting abused in our own country."

John Zogby, who earlier this year took part in a government study of Muslim opinion toward the US around the world, saw a parallel between the Bush administration's arrogant approach to the Muslim world and its isolation among Arab-Americans. But his brother, Jim, emphasized there was also a very big difference between Arabs in the US and Arabs in the Middle East.

"You can make yourself felt here by voting, by organizing, by imposing yourself and showing that you can help 'em or hurt 'em," said Jim Zogby. "Tragically, the only way the Arab world can help or hurt policies is by lowering their oil prices or having a boycott, or by, in some mistaken or perverse way, thinking that by striking out in terror you make an impact ... The election next year will determine who is going to shape the lives of billions of people all over the world," he continued. "We have an opportunity to weigh in on that."

George W. Bush has spent the last two years demanding that Arabs and Muslims embrace American-style democracy. The irony, of course, is that Arab-Americans are doing exactly that. And it is conceivable this might just cost him the election.

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Lawrence Pintak, a journalist who has covered the Islamic world for more than 20 years, is the author of Seeds of Hate: How America's Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad, published in October. He is the Howard R. Marsh visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan.

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