Arab Americans Feel Ignored
Arab-Americans are expected to vote in large numbers next week in what is arguably the most important US election for decades.
But many of them feel they are being intimidated and dissuaded from casting their votes and the US presidential candidates have failed to engage them, representatives of major community organisations say.
Now, groups such as the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee [ADC], are seeking to dispel rumours and disperse misconceptions that have prevented some voters from going to the polls in the past.
The ADC has set up a voter protection unit staffed by five lawyers to help Arab-Americans exercise their right to vote.
One of them, Abed Ayoub, told Al Jazeera: “As always, there will be voter intimidation.”
He said enthusiasm for the election is higher than it was in 2004, with at least 500 Arab-Americans registering in just two days at an ADC-sponsored event in Michigan.
But, at the same time, the ADC has received hundreds of calls over recent months from Arab-Americans who mistakenly believed they may be ineligible to cast their ballot.
“One rumour was that if you are in [mortgage] foreclosure, you can’t vote,” Ayoub said.
Another is the misconception that those who could not read or write in English – often a problem for elderly Arab-Americans – would not be allowed to use translators.
But the greatest fear is of incidents such as one at a municipal election in 1999 in Hamtramck, Michigan, where dozens of dark-skinned Arab-Americans were asked to take a citizenship oath before voting.
The move caused many Arab-Americans to avoid the polls through fear of embarrassment.
In recent elections, ADC says a number of complaints were made to it although they were not made public.
“This year we want to attack the problem before it happens,” Ayoub said.
The votes of an estimated 3.5 million Arab-Americans could be pivotal in the November 4 elections, especially in swing states.
And, although a September poll by the Arab-American Institute showed that Barack Obama was far more popular - with a 54 per cent to 33 per cent lead over John McCain - it also found 20 per cent of Arab-Americans were not enrolled in any political party.
Arab organisations in the US say both presidential campaigns have largely failed to recognise Arab-Americans as an important voting bloc.
“Neither party has done a lot of outreach to the community,” said Lelia Al-Qatami, ADC’s communications and cultural affairs director.
“Ethnic outreach is very common, but we haven’t seen any with regards to the Arab community.”
The Obama campaign briefly had a liaison with the Arab-American community, she acknowledged.
But the facilitator, Mazen Asbahi, resigned 10 days after his appointment in early August after the Wall Street Journal ran a story alleging he may have had ties to a radical preacher.
The Arab-American Institute called the Journal’s claim “vague and specious.”
But the incident was just one of many that have upset Arab-Americans.
Many Arab-Americans also felt let down by the Obama campaign in the summer when two Muslim women wearing headscarves were barred from appearing behind the senator in a television shot at a Detroit rally.
And there has been disappointment over McCain’s recent response to some of his supporters who called Obama “an Arab”.
Responding by defending Obama as “a decent family man,” McCain drew fire from Arab-American Institute (AAI) director James Zogby, who issued a statement noting that Arab-Americans were “also decent men and women”.
Christina Zola, the AAI’s communications director, said: “We would have liked to have had better contact from both sides [of the presidential race].
“The racism on behalf of staff or supporters should have been dealt with better.”
A feeling of being alienated from the two campaigns was also voiced by the Arab-American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) which decided not to endorse either presidential candidate - and neither campaign requested such an endorsement either, AAPAC said.
“Those candidates who are not willing to make the effort to request our support and pursue it respectfully are not worthy of our vote, regardless of who they are,” the AAPAC said in a statement released in October.
Both Obama and McCain have also been criticised by Ralph Nader, an Arab-American of Lebanese descent and an independent presidential candidate in 2008.
Nader challenged the pair to visit a Muslim place of worship before election day “like they [visited] churches and synagogues,” according to a statement on his campaign website.
However, hundreds of Arab-Americans are campaigning for Obama or McCain, the ADC said, while the AAI has recruited several hundred volunteers to help register Arab voters, as part of the Yalla (meaning “come on” or “let’s go” in Arabic) Vote Campaign.
“We need to be involved in this election,” said Mohammad Al Filali, the outreach director for the Islamic Centre of Passaic County in New Jersey, home to one of the greatest concentrations of Arab-Americans.
“We cannot allow our voices to be muzzled,” he said.
At least 100 Arab-Americans registered to vote in the space of a few hours during an event to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in early October, Al Filali said.
He said the community was energised by the election, despite the perception that the word “Arab” had “all of a sudden become a curse” in campaign rhetoric.
Samir Issa, a software engineer who took part in the event, said he would be supporting Obama, regardless of the abrupt departure of the candidate’s Arab-American liaison organiser.
“I lost some trust in him [Obama], but not all, because the other choice is even worse,” said Issa, 36.
“He’s just trying to win, whatever the cost.”
Community involvement is another problem.
Al Filali said the campaigns “pay closer attention to people with money”.
But he insisted: “We are new to the game of politics - but we have to make ourselves known.”