AMERICAN ARABS AND MUSLIMS AND THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

 

Anthony McRoy

 

The next US Presidential elections could see Muslim and Arab- Americans making a crucial impact for the first time. The Sunday Times (13. 8.00) quoted The Wall Street Journal concerning Democrat Al Gore’s Jewish running mate, Joseph Lieberman, that ‘There are now a few more Muslims in America (6m) than Jews (5.7 million). Muslims make up 5% of the vote in Michigan, 2% in Illinois and 1% in California and Ohio. These are critical states where the margin of difference between Gore and Bush is 5% or less, Since the Jewish turnout is already high and already solidly Democratic, those numbers are a problem’. The Journal also noted that ‘there are two million Arab Christians’, and observed that ‘Lieberman’s staunch support of Israel may not endear him to this constituency.’

 

Before selecting Lieberman, Gore enjoyed a slight lead over Bush among Muslim voters, according to a poll by the Council for American-Islamic Relations - Gore 33%, Bush 28%. The figures probably represented traditional Democrat support among Muslims as more minority-friendly than Republicans. The impact of Gore and Lieberman’s hard-line Zionism may affect actual voting. However, as CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper warned us, the difference between the candidates ‘is only one of degree’. American Muslims for Jerusalem noted Bush’s commitment on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, though his running-mate Dick Cheney is more equivocal. At any rate, US politicians often make promises they don’t keep! Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee warned us that Bush and his team may want to address his father’s ‘unfinished business’ with Saddam. Echoing Hooper, Ibish saw little difference between the candidates, though on Palestine, Republicans were marginally ‘the lesser of two evils’. Ibish felt Arab and Muslim voters might find Green candidate Ralph Nader, himself an Arab-American, to be an attractive choice.

 

Palestine is the central overseas concern for Muslim and Arab-Americans, closely followed by Iraq. Domestic issues include anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, ethno-religious discrimination, ‘terrorist’ smears and media hostility. In particular Hollywood’s virulent anti-Arabism/Islamophobia, typified by the recent film ‘Rules of Engagement’, perpetuates the cycle of hostility and hate crimes against the community. It can be seen that American Muslim concerns mirror those of the British community. As in Britain, there have been disputes with other communities, which impedes the community’s empowerment.

 

There has been some conflict with Christians over foreign human rights issues. Relations with Jews are sometimes tense. In Britain, the MCB and the Board of Deputies have collaborated at least once, and rivalry has been relatively restrained. In America, despite some progress, militant Zionists have sponsored Ralph Emerson, labelled an Islamophobe by many Muslims, and also blocked a Muslim from being appointed to a congressional committee on terrorism, though it should be said that many liberal Jews publicly deplored this action. As yet there are no Muslim congressmen, though there are some Arab Christian representatives. There are some Muslim judges. Recently, a Bangladeshi-born American was appointed Ambassador to Fiji.

 

The crucial distinction between British and American Muslims is that the latter have not run for cover when attacked, but faced-up to these problems. The foundation of CAIR especially has seen Muslims pro-active in combating blasphemous adverts, and religious discrimination in employment practices, especially by court action. It is the political field, however, that really sets the two communities apart. Despite the absence of congressional representation, Muslims have intensified their political mobilisation in recent years, actively attempting to secure high voter registration and turn-outs. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee has published a sophisticated guide to evaluating congressional hopefuls, including questionnaires explaining the Muslim agenda to candidates and requesting a response. Muslim leaders have had an informal meeting with one Presidential candidate, and plans are set for a meeting with the other leading contender.

 

The comments by Ibish and the CAIR poll suggest that Muslim-Americans have avoided the British Muslim mistake of in putting all their eggs in one party basket – Labour. This has led to Tories ignoring them, with Labour taking them for granted and marginalising them. US Muslims are more likely to consider what an individual candidate has to offer before committing themselves. Perhaps because America is, as President Kennedy said, ‘a nation of immigrants’, Muslim Americans are more psychologically secure about living in a non-Muslim state than British Muslims, and probably because of this, have avoided the sycophantic approaches of leading British Muslims who, as Lord Ahmed once complained, seem more concerned about photo-opportunity with UK politicians. American Muslim leaders seem more concerned with actual results for the community.

 

One major reason for this has been the presence of the Arab-American community, which historically has been majority Christian. Their presence stretches back into the 19th century, although their political campaigning largely began after the 1967 war, and only began to have any influence in the last ten years. Well-established, usually educated and prosperous, they provided a natural base of support for the millions of Muslim migrants arriving after 1960 – when there were only 100,000 Muslim-Americans. Since so many of their concerns and membership overlap, notably on Palestine and Iraq, Arab and Muslim Americans officially collaborate at all levels. An agreement on co-operation was signed last year by the American Muslim Political Coordination Council and the Council of Presidents of Arab-American Organizations ‘to work together to strengthen the bonds of solidarity among the Arab and Muslim communities and to coordinate their activities in pursuit of common goals.’ ‘Election 2000’ is one of these collaborative projects. The Muslims give the Arabs numerical advantage, whilst the Arabs give the Muslims the benefit of long-standing political and lobbying experience.

 

Of course, with both communities, this lobbying is only in its infancy when compared to the effective lobbies of African-Americans, Jews and even Evangelical Christians. However, according to both Hooper and Ibish, the signs are for increased political mobilisation. Hooper informed us that the Muslim voter-registration drive, reminiscent of similar actions by Black civil rights workers in the 1950s and ’60s, is something never done previously by the community. The joint Arab and Muslim lobby represents a constituency of up to ten million people, and if electors voted tactically and en bloc in certain places this year, they could be effective in deciding the outcome. Again, there are obvious parallels with the British experience, especially with the recent successes of the Justice for Kashmir party in Birmingham.

 

However, Ibish has warned that in American politics, bloc votes matter less than donations for candidates, and this is where the pro-Israeli lobby scores. Surprisingly, Ibish stated that there is enough wealth in the Arab-American community in particular to virtually match the pro-Israeli contributions. The problem, again, is mobilising Arabs and Muslims to reach into their pockets. If performed, candidates benefiting from this are likely to remember, and to vote on Muslim-sensitive issues accordingly. Translated into the Congressional and Presidential fields, such mobilisation could finally end the biased, racist and Islamophobic policies of American governments towards the Muslim world. US Muslim groups are aiming to get not just more Muslim voters, but also Muslim Congressmen and Senators. Community numbers suggest this dream will soon come true.

 

Who knows? One day when a TV newscaster refers to ‘President Hussein’, he might not mean the one in Iraq.

 

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