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Election Focus 2004

Arab Americans and the 2004 Election

Arab Americans, especially since 9/11, have become increasingly involved in state and local politics both as voters and political candidates. Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, businessman and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, spoke with Washington File staff writer Alexandra Abboud about Arab Americans and the 2004 election.

Q. What are the important issues that Arab American voters would like to see addressed in the 2004 election?

I think it’s important to note that this year there is much deviation from previous voter patterns. In the 2000 elections, for example, domestic issues were as high as any foreign policy issue in the Arab American community. Arab Americans share a broad range of domestic concerns with other Americans such as employment, taxation, education, health care, Social Security, Medicare and school vouchers. Since 9/11, however, the most important domestic issues have been civil liberties, protecting the rights of Arab American citizens, immigrant rights and protections in areas such as
visa policies and programs. I think the chief foreign policy issues that are of concern in the Arab American Community are the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, what many believe to be the lack of a comprehensive international strategy for the reconstruction of Iraq and disrespect toward Islam and Muslim peoples in general.

Q. Many Arab Americans live in important election battleground states like Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Are we seeing an effort by the Democratic and Republican parties to reach out to these voters?

A: The fact that seven out of the nine Democratic candidates directly addressed the Arab American National Leadership conference in Dearborn, Michigan in October 2003, and that the Republicans sent Marc Racicot, the chair of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign to the conference, demonstrates their recognition not only that Arab Americans are registered voters in large numbers, but that they do vote, particularly at a time like this where there are so many visible issues that are motivating the community. So there is definitely an effort being made, particularly in these critical states, to reach out to Arab American voters.

Q. Typically, what are the political leanings of Arab Americans?

A: It pretty much reflects the national trend — about 45 percent Republican, 43 percent Democrat. The rest are independents who don't declare a party preference. Arab Americans break down pretty much just like other Americans do. As a result of issues such as Palestine, the war in Iraq and civil liberties, it appears that Arab Americans are moving more toward the Democratic Party or making the Republican Party answer very tough questions about what the United States is going to do to improve the policies in those areas. Because the Arab American community is largely professionals, educated and small business owners, there’s a very strong tendency toward being more conservative as both Democrats and Republicans. But in general, how people vote in each election very much depends on the issues that are raised and the quality of the candidates.

Since 9/11, for example, there has been a dramatic shift in the approval ratings of the president, and a December 2003 poll and a January 2004 poll, show that Arab American support for the president has dropped from 45 percent to less than 20 percent.

Q. Are we seeing an increase in Arab American participation in politics both in terms of voting and in running for political office?

A: I think there is greater participation across the board. For example, at almost all the major mosques and Arab Community Centers, there are voter registration drives on a regular basis. There is a heightened awareness among Arab Americans that they can’t avoid the political process if they want to defend their rights — that they have to be part of the process. When Arab Americans first came here, the first immigrants — like most immigrants — were interested and concerned about economic issues such as finding a job, raising their families and providing education for their kids. So public service was not high on their agenda. But after one or two generations, you start to have people look around and say, “Listen, if we’re going to really participate in this society, public service is something we have to look to.” And so we have great role models. We have, for example, West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, former governor John Sununu, former U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, the late Najeeb Halaby, former chairman of Pan American World Airways and the father of Jordan’s Queen Noor, and former Maine Senator George Mitchell. There are both Democrats and Republican roll models for Arab Americans in terms of public service.

Also, we are seeing a lot more young people involved in get-out-thevote efforts and in voter registration efforts, and we feel very strongly that Arab Americans are really starting to get it — that they can’t wait only every four years to participate in the process, but that they have to be part of it constantly. And Arab Americans as candidates are much more sophisticated than they were years ago because they recognize that voting is done primarily on a local basis on local issues, and Arab Americans are as much a part of the local community as anyone else.

The work of the Arab American Institute is really just encouraging Arab Americans to accept their responsibility as citizens, not once every four years, but on a continuing basis, so that not only are they concerned about who is elected president, but what the school boards are doing, what is being done about traffic congestion and if we have safe streets. This is all part of becoming responsible members of the community, and we find a very, very positive response among Arab Americans. Particularly interesting now is getting the immigrants to understand their role in the community. In the past it was easier to do this with Arab Americans who had been in the United States or were born here, and whose parents were born here. But now we’re also seeing the newly arrived immigrants who understand that this is a challenge that can only be met if they take personal responsibility for it by becoming good citizens.