Published on Monday, October 20, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
It is one of the ironies of post-911 America.
The very sense of isolation and alienation felt by Arab-Americans in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing 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,” says 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 thick in the air at last week’s national conference of the Arab American Institute, the main Arab political lobby in the U.S. It was evident in the back-to-back interviews AAI President Jim Zogby was giving to everyone from the local Detroit TV stations to The New York Times. And it was most vividly reflected in the lineup of Democratic presidential contenders that crowded 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 Gov. 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 the Bush White House.
Conventional wisdom in Washington has always held that one reason U.S. policy has been heavily skewed toward Israel is that Israel’s supporters voted as a block and the Arabs did not. The story may be very different in 2004.
The shift did not come overnight, nor is it solely the result of 9/11. Years of grassroots organization, including major voter registration drives, slowly brought Arab-Americans into the American political process. Still they were about evenly split three ways. It was 9/11 and Bush administration policies of the last two years that have 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.
If their cousins back in the Middle East are angry at the Bush White House for plunging a dagger into the heart of the Arab world, Arab-Americans in the U.S. are outraged by the loss of civil liberties in the post-911 backlash and administration policies toward the Middle East and Muslim world. Second- and third-generation Arab-Americans, many Christian, who previously had little affinity for their roots now find themselves under siege. And even die-hard Bush supporters are reeling under the knockout punch of a collapsing economy.
All of which has politicians – from presidential contenders to mayoral candidates – treating Arab-American voters with newfound respect.
“When your numbers add up, people talk to you differently,” says Jim Zogby, with evident pleasure in his voice.
“It’s a 50-50 country today,” says his brother, pollster John Zogby, of 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 the newfound feeling of political confidence is tangible among the grassroots organizers at last week’s conference, there was also a darker undercurrent lurking in the shadows. After this writer completed an interview with one Massachusetts businessman, 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?”
“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,” explained his companion. “Sept. 11 was a double-whammy on the Arab community. Not only our country got hit, we’re getting abused in our own country.”
Pollster John Zogby, who took part in a recent government study of Muslim opinion toward the U.S. around the world, sees a parallel between the Bush administration’s arrogant approach to the Muslim world and its isolation of Arab-Americans. But his brother, Jim, emphasizes there is also a very big difference between Arabs in the U.S. 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,” says 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 continues. “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 just may cost him the election.