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.
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.