Taking a Seat at the Lunch Counter: Arabs, Muslims and the American Ballot Box

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How have the September 11th attacks on America affected how Arab Americans and American Muslims organize themselves for the ballot box? What does the future hold for the political influence of America’s approximately 3 million citizens of Arab ancestry and as many as 6 million Muslims? Who are their allies? Who are their enemies? What are their political issues? And where do we expect to the political influence of these communities to be in the years ahead?

The future also depends-to a great extent-on the communities themselves, and how effectively they are able to organize.

African Americans did not end segregation in the American South in the second half of the 20th century by complaining about it; African Americans ended segregation by taking a seat at lunch counter, by sitting in the front of the bus, by having the courage, the dedication and the wisdom to go where they previously weren’t allowed. Until the early 1990s, Arab Americans and American Muslims suffered from political segregation. They were often kept off political campaigns, they often had their campaign contributions returned. And all because their ethnic and religious backgrounds made them suspect in the eyes of many. And despite being almost the size of the American Jewish Community, there is still not a single American Muslim Member of Congress.

While this political segregation along ethnic and religious lines had not ended entirely-evidenced by Hillary Clinton returning tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from American Muslims in 2000 because she felt they were a political liability-another monumental September date in US-Middle East relations dramatically leveled the playing field for Arab Americans and American Muslims.

On September 13, 1993, President Clinton presided over the signing of the Oslo Accords between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat. This event dramatically altered the traditional view among on Capitol Hill that political support from Arab Americans and American Muslims would antagonize a pro-Israel lobby that is still rated by Fortune Magazine as the fourth most powerful lobby in America, more powerful than the AFL-CIO. Despite lingering prejudices, since September 13, 1993, the doors to America’s political power structure are now dramatically more open to Arab Americans and American Muslims than at any time in recent decades.

During the 1996 Presidential campaign, Arab Americans and American Muslims played prominent roles in both the Dole and Clinton campaigns. Arab American Peter Dagher served as Clinton’s Director of Operations and went on to run for Congress in 2002 in Chicago where although he failed to get elected, he galvanized the local Arab American and American Muslim communities to support his campaign. American Muslim Mona Mohib served on the African American outreach team and went on to, among other posts, the Clinton White House and today serves as the Political Director for Al Gore’s Leadership 02 Political Action Committee and became the first American Muslim to serve on the Democratic National Committee. Clinton handily won the Arab American vote in 1996 56% to 34% according to polls by Zogby International.

During the 2000 Presidential Campaigns, a coalition of American Muslim organizations, founded mostly in the 1990s, and led by the Islamic Institute’s Khaled Saffuri, long-time Arab American and American Muslim activist, endorsed George W. Bush for President based on many factors, among them commitments made by the Bush to ban the use of secret evidence and racial profiling, all of which came to an end after September 11th, although the political access they earned during that process has remained.

Meanwhile Presidential candidates Al Gore and his running-mate Joseph Lieberman also gave unprecedented access to Arab Americans and American Muslims. Lieberman’s first public meeting after being appointed the Vice Presidential nominee was to meet with Arab Americans in Michigan, a sign of growing prominence for the Arab American community. Dr. James Zogby served as the Gore-Lieberman Campaign’s Senior Advisor for Ethnic American Outreach and I served as the Campaign’s National Director for Ethnic American Outreach. Our work, together with that of the Arab American community and their supporters succeeded in adjusting Gore’s policy away from endorsing secret evidence, racial profiling and in creating the first-ever section of a major Presidential candidate’s website devoted to Arab American interests.

In 2000, much ado was made in the press of the endorsement of Bush by major American Muslim and Arab American organizations but the actual vote was quite another matter. Analysis of the Arab American and American Muslim vote shows, first, that Gore won nine of the twelve states where Arab Americans live in the highest concentrations California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Second, Gore won fifteen of the twenty counties with the highest Arab American concentrations. In the end, however, exit polls of Arab Americans conducted by Zogby International gave 46% of the vote to Bush, 38% to Gore and 14% to Arab American third party candidate Ralph Nader. This was a clear migration away from the Democratic presidential ticket, but not at all the “landslide victory” claimed by many of Bush’s Arab American or American Muslim supporters. Even in Dearborn, Michigan, the city with the most famous concentration of Arab Americans in the USA, Bush only beat Gore by 3000 votes-Bush 20,100, Gore 17,101, other 1672-according to official City figures.

If the Muslim endorsement of Bush in 2000 played any role, it was to put the Muslims in America in the nation’s political spotlight for a moment. According to a poll published by the Georgetown University hosted project “Muslims in American Public Square” also conducted by Zogby International in November 2001, 40% of American Muslims describe themselves as Democrats, 23% Republican and 28% independents. According to the poll, Bush also won 42% of the Muslim vote, while Gore won 31% and Nader 12%. Again, Bush seems to have done better in the American Muslim community than Gore but this is definitely no landslide. Despite the endorsement of Bush by American Muslim organizations, the poll found that the four issues with the most dramatic margins in the American Muslim community are all issues that have been championed by the Democratic Party, and interestingly, also, the American Jewish community: 96% of American Muslims support the “elimination of all forms of racial discrimination,” 94% support “providing universal health care for citizens,” 93% support “providing more generous government assistance to the poor,” and 93% support “stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” Such common ground could prove politically significant as alliances shift in the decades ahead.

But how has the American political process changed since September 11, 2001? In the two most important state-wide elections since then, which were for the office of Governor of the States of Virginia and New Jersey, Arab Americans and American Muslims played prominent roles. In the case of Virginia, the role of Arab Americans was, in a way, historic. The northern Virginia Arab American community’s annual candidate’s night drew just about every major candidate for state-wide office easily making it one of the most notable political events of the entire campaign. And not only did an Arab American Saba Shami and I serve as Democratic Party Candidate Mark Warner’s State Director for Ethnic Outreach and Advisor on Ethnic Outreach, respectively, but a pan-ethnic coalition of Middle Eastern Americans including Bangladeshi Americans, Eritrean Americans, Iranian Americans, and Pakistani Americans was fully embraced by the campaign. Through our efforts, the Warner Campaign also became the first-ever major campaign for state-wide office in US history to put campaign literature in Arabic on their website. Moreover, Mark Warner is now Governor of Virginia and he and the Virginia State Democratic Party have been appointing Arab Americans to significant offices and committees in the state.

At the same time, however, tendencies among the politically active segments of the American Jewish community seem to have shifted significantly to the right when it comes to the Middle East, likely resulting from the increasingly violent and deadly conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and commensurate with changes in political views in Israel. As a consequence, a number of key Members of Congress, who have long voted for Middle East policy positions that coincide with the views of the Arab American and American Muslim communities, have found themselves coming under attacks calculated to throw them out of office. Long-time Congressman Earl Hilliard, the first African American Member of Congress from Alabama, lost his June primary election to an African American challenger who political insiders and the Washington Post alike recognized was largely funded by right-wing elements in of the pro-Israel lobby. They were out to defeat Hilliard for his reluctance to support right wing, pro-Israel positions on the Middle East. While the typical Congressional election in Alabama is generally run with a few hundred thousand dollars, Hilliard’s opponent, Artur Davis out-raised and out-spent him, spending over $1.2 million for the primary, perhaps a record in Alabama. Where did Davis’s funds come from? According to www.opensecrets.com, an excellent source for campaign finance information, Davis did not raise much money in his home state of Alabama. The most up-to-date analysis of his funds available at the time of writing shows that a remarkable 79% came from out of state, with $172,222 of his first $427,232, or 40% coming from the New York metro area alone-with three of the other top five metro areas being near-by Nassau-Suffolk on Long Island, Bergen-Passaic in New Jersey and Stamford-Norwalk in Connecticut. Taken together New York and these three satellite county clusters provided 53% of Davis’s first several hundred thousand. To demonstrate the astounding influence that New Yorkers played in this Congressional race, one need look no further than Hilliard’s own campaign finance information. Hilliard raised no more than $29,306 from any one metro area, and that metro area happened to be Birmingham, Alabama, smack dab in his Congressional district.

The defeat of Hilliard was intended to send a message to the Congressional Black Caucus and others, that severe negative consequences will befall those who resist their views. And make no mistake; the election will certainly frighten some Members of Congress. But many Members of the Congressional Black Caucus seem to be resentful of this political attack from non-African American interest groups from outside the Congressional district. Furthermore, the remarkable efforts of the Arab American and American Muslim community to raise money for their ally at the last minute and drive down to Alabama along side many member of the Congressional Black Caucus to campaign on Hilliard’s behalf has earned great respect for the Arab American and American Muslim communities.

Some say that other Members of Congress who have also long-resisted the political pressures of the right wing elements of the pro-Israel lobby are also paying the price for their political views. When redistricting took two Congressional districts away from Michigan, veteran Congressman John Dingell who has served since 1955, and has long been a leading opponent of Likud’s policies, was placed in an August 6th run-off primary election with fellow Democrat Lynn Rivers. While the two are similar, politically, on a variety of issues, Rivers received the support of the right wing elements of those opposed to Congressman Dingell’s balanced stands on the Middle East. Arab Americans and American Muslims are visibly supported their longtime ally Dingell with fundraisers and “get out the vote” drives. While Congressman Dingell was ultimately victorious, he did pay an electoral price for his balanced positions on the Middle East.

So, on the one hand, the political process seems to be rapidly opening up to Arab Americans and American Muslims. On the other hand, Members of Congress who have long supported Arab American political positions, particularly as they related to Middle East foreign policy, have found themselves under dramatic attack.

There are those who would argue that, like affirmative action, the inclusions and openness to Arab Americans and American Muslims into America’s political process matters little if the issues they stand for are not being fully embraced. But the fact is that it does make a difference when Arab Americans and American Muslims are present inside campaigns, at the policy table with the President, as staffers and Members of Congress on Capitol Hill and in elected and appointed offices inside state and local government. When anyone, including Arab Americans and American Muslims, are included, their issues do get address and they do affect the process. The most direct ways for any community to affect the political process are by participating. The communities are fast coming to the realization that the old strategies like demonstrating and letter-writing are futile unless linked to savvy insight into how politics works and day-in, day-out participation.

Where Arab Americans and American Muslims will be in the upcoming elections cycles in 2004 and beyond will depend on how effectively they organize themselves to more fully take their seat at America’s political table. In turn, this will depend on their willpower and their wisdom. But as famed Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local;” Arab Americans and American Muslims would do well to heed that advice and concentrate on organizing locally first at the county level and then the state level. Only then will they be truly ready to one day take the step to Presidential endorsements and not be taken at least partially for granted. The organizing strategies of Arab Americans and American Muslims, along with the remnant political inclinations of the right wing elements pro-Israel lobby, will make a difference. So too will potential political alliances between Arab Americans, American Muslims and mainstream American Jews who share very similar beliefs on a large number of domestic political issues.

But the future is hard to predict. What is sure is that the growing numbers of Arab Americans and American Muslims will yield increasing influence over the political process. In ten years Arab Americans and American Muslims may not yet be major players in of Presidential politics, but the decade will likely see the election of the first American Muslim Members of Congress, and that along with the Arab American Members of Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus and others, they may soon form a critical mass on Capitol Hill which is increasingly unwilling to compromise its views on America’s Middle East policy and will likely form a rather progressive block on domestic issues long with many American Jewish Members of Congress.

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