Arab-Americans are poised to play a critical role in the US presidential election. Numbering about 4 million, they're heavily concentrated in several battleground states — including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — where every vote will count in a race that many consider too close to call.
A mid-September survey of 400 voters conducted by the Arab American Institute revealed that President Barack Obama leads Republican candidate Mitt Romney among Arab-Americans, 52% to 28%, with 16 percent of Arab Americans still undecided. This compares to the 67% to 28% lead Obama held over John McCain among Arab Americans in 2008, signaling a potential loss of some 100,000 voters for Obama, according to AAI.
A substantial drop in Arab-American support for Obama, relative to 2008, accompanied by the large number of undecided voters, especially in key swing states, could be a signal to the present and future candidates.
The Arab-American political community had its challenges following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Patriot Act, arrests, detentions and deportations targeted members of the community. A New York Police Department surveillance program and opposition to building mosques and Islamic community centers, like the Park51 center near Ground Zero, preoccupied the community’s political leaders. Instead of campaigning for broader national and international issues, Arab-Americans found themselves fighting as much, or more than ever, for their civil liberties.
The post 9/11 atmosphere, and the concern of many candidates not to alienate American supporters of Israel, led to Arab-Americans at times being passed over by national campaigns.
“The situation hasn’t improved much since then [Sept. 11],” according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “[Fundraising] dinners are taking hits. Businesses and politicians were pulling money out for fear of the consequences.”
“Candidates often resist speaking at Arab-American events,” said Safa Rifka, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington-based civil rights organization. “When it comes to our position on foreign policy issues, the candidates don’t want to hear it,” adding that while some lawmakers have made an effort to work with the community, they are often the exception.
Through social media, mixers, fundraisers and galas, a younger generation of Arab-American activists is calling for power in numbers — and many are jumping on the bandwagon. In recent years, activists have mobilized humanitarian support for those in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, holding demonstrations and collecting humanitarian relief for those in need. They’ve also participated in domestic causes for better health care, education and humanitarianism, including group participation in the annual MS Walk, and this week, humanitarian relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
“We are health care, education, employment, civil rights,” said Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, “ we will never have an impact on U.S. foreign policy if we can’t get our communities involved and impassioned about issues here at home. So that is what we are trying to do.”
“These activist networks translate into political power at the local, state and national levels,” said Rifka. “It is a sign of our strength, our dynamism and our maturity as a political community.”
Arab-Americans hope to send a message this election — that its community cannot be taken for granted, and that it is a political force to reckon with. Rifka recalled that in 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry, who would not meet with Arab-American groups during the campaign, barely lost in Ohio and it may have cost him a state where Arab-Americans are a key constituency.
“I would challenge anyone who says Arab-Americans can’t impact the results in this election — because they can, and they have,” said Rifka.
Vivian Salama has spent much of the past decade reporting in the Middle East for Bloomberg News, BusinessWeek, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post and USA Today, as well as academic journals. She also has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, France24, Bloomberg TV, TV New Zealand, CBS News, among other outlets. She covered the recent revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.