When Dearborn resident Amal Berry-Brown left the National Leadership Conference for Arab Americans in October, she said she walked away sad.
Because while the annual conference–held in 2011 in Dearborn–is always about creating a unified political and social voice for the community, it’s hard to find unity without a clear political leader.
In 2008, that person was then presidential candidate Barack Obama. But heading into 2012’s election season, the choices are much murkier.
“The Arab American community is a bit disenfranchised,” Berry-Brown, a Comerica vice president and community leader, told Dearborn Patch last October. “We had a great deal of hope in President Obama, and some of that really hasn’t come to fruition. So in 2012, it will be interesting to see the overall stance the community takes in who they’ll be supporting, and what can be done.”
Berry-Brown’s attitude mirrors the greater Arab American and Muslim American communities in Michigan and nationally. With a president who has not lived up to expectations in terms of civil liberties, foreign policy and immigration law, and Republican candidates who nearly all have voiced anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric, Arab Americans are wondering: Who should we vote for? Or should we vote at all?
For Arab American and Muslim organizations that focus on civic engagement, the first and biggest goal is to get their constituents to the polls.
The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations combats voter apathy with Get Out the Vote campaigns at local mosques, reminding Muslim Michiganders of the great responsibility they have to cast their ballot–even if the candidate is not aligned with all of the issues that matter to them.
“We’re encouraging people that the election is still important; voting is still important," explained Executive Director Dawud Walid. "I tell them, ‘Don’t take your vote for granted. Many people are dying to get the right to vote.’”
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, confirmed that the problem is nationwide.
“I think (apathy) is national," he said. "Approval rates are low … and you’ve got a depressed environment in the country."
And with the passion seen in 2008 gone for many voters, the approach of civic engagement organizations will change drastically for 2012 as well.
“There will be an effort to mobilize people, but it will be different than 2008,” Zogby said.
Obama Losing Support
Much of the apathy seen in Arab American voters stems from a feeling that no one candidate, or political party, represents them well.
While many of the nation’s estimated 3.5 million Arab American’s supported George W. Bush in 2000, a poll of community members conducted by Zogby International in 2008 found that 46 percent backed Obama in that year’s election, while 32 percent pledged support for Republican John McCain.
Some post-election estimates from the same year claimed that 90 percent Muslim voters supported Obama.
Osama Siblani, treasurer of the Arab American Political Action Committee, publisher of the Dearborn-based and founder of both, said it could be chalked up to the fact that many Arab Americans and Muslims are split on key issues.
“In general, Arab Americans are conservatives,” he said. “Politically they may be liberal, but on civil issues like abortion, taxes and stuff, they’re more conservative. But (the GOP) alienates the community when they talk about Islamaphobia.”
This go around, Siblani and others believe that Obama won’t do as well, although much of that depends on which Republican candidate comes out on top and how they campaign.
“We have issues with the Republican Party, but I don’t think the Democrats should take us for granted,” Siblani said. “This community is a very unique community. Politically they’re liberal, but it doesn’t take much to move them to the right.”
Zogby, however, said he thinks Obama will still be supported nationally among Arab American voters–especially because the disappointment among voters has not gone unnoticed by the Democratic Party.
“I think that the Democrats will do very well in 2012, and they’ll win back a lot of support,” Zogby said. “But I don’t think that the numbers will be where they were in 2008–meaning that the percentage (of support) will be the same, but the turnout will be less.”
As for Republicans, Zogby said a lot will depend on what the final candidate says and does during his campaign. So far, it hasn’t been good.
“The candidates have made rather shocking statements about the Middle East and about Islam,” he said. “These candidates scare the hell out of people.”
Walid agreed, and said that it seems in 2012, Islamaphobia has grown.
“There’s more anti-Muslim sentiment this election from the GOP, both locally and nationally,” he said.
With one exception, that is.
Ron Paul a Standout?
Ron Paul’s stance on foreign policy, support of streamlining immigration processes and staunch beliefs on the roles of government have won over many Arab American voters.
“Paul has been the only major Republican candidate to resist the type of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant demonization, fear-mongering and pandering to ultra-conservative voters in his party that has become pervasive in the post-9/11 climate,” the Arab American news wrote in their Feb. 24 endorsement of the candidate.
He's also the only GOP candidate to actively court Arab American voters: his at Dearborn's is co-sponsored by the 's Arab Student Union.
But, Zogby pointed out, Paul is generally considered to be out of the question as the 2012 GOP candidate.
“I think people look (at Ron Paul) the way people looked at (Independent candidate Ralph) Nader in 2004 and they say, ‘at least on some issues, he’s saying things I want to hear,’” Zogby explained. “But come November, it’ll be who’s on the ballot and what’s the choice.
“I understand the Ron Paul sentiment, but that will fade.”
Still, Siblani said support for Paul is more about making Arab American voices heard.
“The reason we’re trying to support Ron Paul in this primary is for us to have someone to speak at the platform at the Republican National Convention,” Siblani said. “If he gets 15-20 percent of the delegates, then he can be a force at the convention and he can bring up the issues that most Americans are concerned about.”
Which, Siblani said, could be the light bulb moment for the GOP in realizing they can and should court Arab American voters.
And although CAIR and the Arab American Institute do not endorse, groups like AAPAC do–and they have significant clout in the community.
“We’re willing to sit down and talk to any candidate,” Siblani said. “After that, the issue becomes deciding who is closer to the issues that we care about. And then after we discuss it amongst ourselves, we go to our community and try to get them on the same line with us, so we walk in united.”