Arab American Voters Need Not Despair

It should not be surprising that Arab Americans, like most Americans, are deeply troubled by the horrific events unfolding in the Middle East. But they are also frustrated. Many in the community, while recognizing the progress they’ve made in recent years, are concerned that their voices are not being heard in this election year.

Some of this frustration was in evidence this month at the Arab American Institute Foundation’s "Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Dinner." The gala black tie event, that honors individuals and institutions that have made significant contributions to promoting understanding and humanitarian ideals, has continued to grow in each of its six years of existence. This year’s event brought almost 1,000 participants together to honor Mohammed Ali, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), a civic project "Rock the Vote," and a remarkable Palestinian-American entrepreneur, Walid Ali. A special award named after recently deceased Najeeb Halaby was presented by his daughter Queen Noor to West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall. The Halaby prize will be given annually to an Arab American who has displayed excellence in public service and pride in his heritage.

As has been the practice at each year’s event, a number of US political leaders also addressed the gathering. Previous speakers, for example have included President William Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator Edward Kennedy, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and three other members of President Bush’s cabinet.

This year the short political addresses were given by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois, the new general chair of the Democratic Party Senator Richard Durbin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

With such a lineup, there was, to be sure, a celebratory mood to the event. But given the events unfolding around the world, there was an undercurrent of frustration and raw hurt as well. The growing crisis in Iraq compounded by the recently released photos giving evidence to torture and degradation in Iraq’s prisons, the continuing numbing violence in Palestine, and the ever-present concern with civil liberties, were a heavy presence casting a pall over the festivities.

America is divided, and so too are Arab Americans. When one of the Democratic speakers, for example, observed that he had voted against the war, many erupted into long applause, too long for some. When the Master of Ceremonies noted that Arab American presidential candidate Ralph Nader was in attendance, some in the audience cheered, maybe too loudly for some. And when a young Palestinian poet described the suffering of Palestinians in her introduction of the Gibran prize recipient, ANERA, her words were intense, maybe too intense for some.

These displays of emotion were unscripted and real, because it’s not an easy time for Arab Americans.
The community has achieved a level of recognition, that was clear from the attention that continues to be given to their efforts. And Arab Americans are feeling empowered. But Arab Americans are looking, as well, to the nation’s leaders for a response to some of the community’s most deeply felt concerns.

In reality, the emotion expressed at the Gibran event and the political concerns of Arab Americans cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is, rather, an expression of frustration with crises spinning out of control that have been given short shrift by all sides in the political debate. While many Arab Americans feel that George Bush has given them too little comfort, the presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry has not won the support of those who have become disaffected.

This frustration has been born out in a recent poll of Arab American voters conducted by the Arab American Institute. Surveying the attitudes of 500 Arab American voters in four key electoral states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida), the poll found that the top issue concerns of Arab Americans were the economy, health care, terrorism, and education. Very high up on the list, as well, were the foreign policy concerns of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Arab American voters gave John Kerry high ratings on the economy, health care, and education, they gave Bush the edge in dealing with terrorism and national security. But neither of the two major party candidates were given strong ratings on either Iraq or Israel-Palestine. As a result, almost 30% of Arab American voters in these key four states indicate that, at present, they either support Ralph Nader or are undecided as to how they will cast their vote.

But Arab Americans need not despair. Before this election is over, their votes will count and their voices will be heard before this election is over. In the 2000 contest, only a little more than 200,000 votes separated Bush from Gore in these same four key states. And right now, national polls show that Bush and Kerry are tied in Florida and Pennsylvania. Bush is up only 1% in Ohio and Kerry is up 1% in Michigan. With an election this close and with an expected turnout of over 500,000 Arab American voters in these same four states, it can be expected that the community will have a role to play come November.

If the community remains engaged and focused, attention will be paid. It was commitment to organization and to a disciplined political focus that has responsible for the community moving as far as it has into the mainstream. The same effort, if sustained, will give Arab Americans the voice they need to change the policy debate in this election year.

The special crises about which Arab Americans show great concern will not go away; nor can they be ignored. The Gibran event demonstrated that. This election is still young. The issues debate will become more serious in the fall.