Arab Americans emerge as a political force

Just twenty years ago candidates for national office were refusing Arab American endorsements and returning their contributions.  There were virtually no Arab Americans working in national campaigns and Arab Americans were shut out of the public debate on civil liberties and the Middle East.  The progress the community has made was evident on October 17 when four hundred Arab American leaders from over twenty states gathered in Dearborn, Michigan, for the Arab American Institute’s National Leadership Conference (NLC).  The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, two leading Arab American organizations headquartered in Dearborn, served as community co-sponsors of the historic event.

For the first time in the community’s history presidential candidates from the major parties turned out in full force to curry favor with the nation’s increasingly active and vocal Arab American community.  Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, and Carole Moseley Braun as well as Marc Racicot, Chair of Bush-Cheney 2004, addressed the energized audience on issues ranging from civil liberties and the Arab-Israeli conflict to health care and the economy.  “Never again will the Arab American community be traumatized by the politics of exclusion.  Arab Americans have proven that they are an American political constituency who are organized and whose votes can make a difference,  ” said AAI President Dr. James Zogby.

Civil Liberties
The Patriot Act and its effects on civil liberties was a principal focus throughout the weekend.  Of chief concern was striking a balance between Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and national security and communicating to fellow Americans that the Patriot Act affects all, regardless of ethnicity.  Georgetown professor and “Enemy Aliens” author David Cole argued, “Americans need to understand that what their government does to foreign nationals in the name of security serves as a precursor to what they will do to citizens.”  Cole sited laws against subversive speech that were originally targeted at foreign nationals and later extended to citizens who criticized World War I. 

A fundamental criticism of the Patriot Act’s targeting of Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as foreign nationals, is that it is ineffective.  According to Cole of the over 5,000 foreign nationals who have been detained since 9/11, only two have been convicted of anything related to terrorism.  Kary Moss, head of the Michigan office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), voiced concern that Americans are not aware of the powers the Patriot Act gives the government to invade citizens’ personal privacy.  “Government agents can obtain warrants to search your home and remove things without ever letting you know,” said Moss.  NAACP’s Reverend Wendell Anthony stressed the importance of coalitions between Arab Americans and people of color including African Americans and Latinos.  “We may have come over in different boats, but we’re all in the same boat now.  No presidential candidate should run a campaign without having to address these issues.” 

The candidates attending the conference certainly obliged.  In a statement delivered on behalf of General Wesley Clark, who was forced to cancel due to illness, Ambassador Edward Gabriel stated, “Today we find ourselves in a country where repressive tactics are packaged and they’re sold as the Patriot Act, and where anyone with the courage to dissent is labeled as ‘unpatriotic.’”  Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun spoke of her personal commitment to upholding civil rights.  “I am a member of a controversial minority…We are patriotic Americans in the first sense because we had to fight for freedom…So I, in my time, will not stand idly by and watch this Bush administration tear up the Constitution and really demean and dismiss everything that has made this country the greatest country in the world.”  Congressman Richard Gephardt warned of the danger of losing the balance between civil liberties and national security.  “If we lose the rights that this country was based on in order to somehow save the country, then what have we saved?” 

While maintaining that “there are some provisions in the Patriot Act which are not provisions anyone ever focuses on that are actually good,” Senator John Edwards suggested an independent watchdog office of civil liberties that would report regularly to the White House and Congress.  Speaking on behalf of President George Bush, former Montana Governor and chair of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign Marc Racicot pointed out that while the Patriot Act was passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate and 66 in the House, there are aspects of the bill that must be amended.  “I’m not aware of any act, or any piece of legislation ever that has been undertaken by human beings, who are certainly subject to imperfections, that has ultimately ended up in a situation where it did not have to be refined.” 

The sharpest criticism of the Patriot Act came from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.  “Because John Ashcroft touts the Patriot Act around this country does not make John Ashcroft a patriot…A war on terror cannot become a war on civil rights and freedoms.  We should not have to choose between securing our homeland and securing the blessings of liberty.  We can have both.  Otherwise, the terrorists have won and we will not permit that.”  Dean specifically denounced the treatment of those in federal custody as well as the labeling of American citizens as enemy combatants.  “Abuses of detainees in custody, as reported by the Justice Department’s inspector general, is morally wrong and unconstitutional…Labeling American citizens as enemy combatants and holding them indefinitely without access to counsel and the court counters everything the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States stood for 200 years ago.” 

Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist pointed out that opposition to the Patriot Act has been taken up by a broad coalition including both the ACLU and the American Conservative Union (ACU) and ethnic groups including Arab Americans, African Americans, and Latinos.  Civil Liberties, ACLU’s Moss agreed, “is not a partisan issue.  It’s a principled defense of the Bill of Rights.” 

Iraq
Not since the Vietnam War, has foreign policy played such a critical role in a national election.  A key issue in presidential debates, it is also a defining characteristic for candidates like Congressman Dennis Kucinich.  Kucinich, who campaigns heavily on his opposition to the Iraq war and the lack of United Nations involvement, promised that as President he would “go to the United Nations with a resolution that will have the following principles: first that the United State will renounce any interest in Iraqi oil, that the UN will control the oil on behalf of the Iraqi people…Second, that the UN will handle all contracts in Iraq.  There shall be no more Halliburton sweetheart deals…and third, that the UN will construct a new cause of governance in Iraq…for the self-determination of the Iraqi people.” 

Kucinich was joined in his call to internationalize the occupation force and allow the United Nations to play a central role in the Iraqi interim government by Senator John Kerry.  “I believe that President Bush’s approach is without accountability and transparency, but most importantly, it continues the mistaken policy of keeping the United States of America as the principle occupying force in another country in the Middle East.  And I think that what we should do is transition much more rapidly to a United Nations presence for the civilian governance, and humanitarian components of the transition.” 

Governor Racicot reiterated President Bush’s commitment to establishing a peaceful government in Iraq and to the international community’ embrace of this initiative, while maintaining that the timeline for withdrawal could not be set.  “I believe Iraqi people in overwhelming numbers want to have us there until such time as the institutions of government, and the opportunities and infrastructure are in place, allowing for them to assume complete control of their own destiny.  So I don’t know that you could draw a timetable…but it seems to me there is great promise on the horizon.  With the engagement of the international community the kind of equilibrium that will be necessary to preserve a balance, and to see secure growth in the development of that democracy [will be available].”

Governor Dean urged Americans to consider the changes that could be made throughout the world using diplomacy rather than force. “Over a decade ago, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down, and American didn’t fire a shot…it’s not just enough to have a strong military to defend the United States of America, it’s also important to have high moral principles and a set of ideals to which other countries aspire as well.”

Palestine-Israel
While the issue of Palestine and Israel was the most controversial, and at times the most emotional, of the weekend many were pleased that Arab Americans are finally being included as part of the debate.  “A candidate told me that speaking to our group after speaking to a group of Jewish American leaders is like trying to thread a needle.  I think that’s great because a decade ago there was no needle to thread.  There was no honest debate on American involvement in the conflict,” said AAI President James Zogby. 

Many candidates were not specific in their plans for Mid East peace, but promised an administration that would be more engaged.  “If we don’t lead in the Middle East, nobody’s going to lead…We need a president who will work with all the people of this world and all the leaders of this world to solve the problems we face, because they are all our problems,” said Congressman Rich Gephardt.  Several candidates suggested a permanent envoy be sent to the region to negotiate a peace deal.  Governor Dean pledged, “If I were president tomorrow, the first thing I would do is pick up the telephone and ask Bill Clinton to go to the Middle East and represent me at a high-level delegation.”  General Clark agreed with both Dean and Gephardt and went on to link the solution of the Palestine-Israel conflict with fighting terrorism.  “We abdicated our leadership role in the peace process while we waged war on terror.  The problem with that approach is that it failed to acknowledge that fighting terrorism and bringing peace to the Middle East go hand in hand.”  Senator Kerry had strong words concerning the Wall Israel is building in Palestinian territory.  “We do not need another barrier to peace.  Provocative and counterproductive measures only harm Israel’s security over the long-term.  They increase hardships to the Palestinian people and make the process of negotiating an eventual settlement that much harder.”  Governor Racicot promised that, if nominated for a second term, President Bush would continue to work on the Roadmap for Mideast peace.  “He is committed to an independent Palestinian state…He is setting about to provide the leadership needed and necessary for people in that region to seize the moment…to once and for all bring peace and stability to that part of the world.”

The candidate who made the deepest impression was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.  While maintaining that, “America surely can be both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian” and “the wall is temporary, it can come down as soon as there is an agreement” many were troubled by his refusal to label the demolition of Palestinian homes as terrorism.  But the overall response to Lieberman’s speech was a mix of appreciation that he spoke honestly with the audience and admiration that he made a sincere effort to reach out to the Arab American community.  Zogby noted, “it was Senator Lieberman’s outrage at Arab American exclusion from the 1992 Clinton campaign that opened the door to Arab American participation.  We have differences, but I don’t forget the fact that he was willing to help when we needed a friend.” 

Arab Americans and the 2004 Elections
As Arab Americans have raised their political profile, issues that have traditionally been considered ‘Arab American’ issues, such as Middle East peace, have come to the center of the national debate.  Robert Borosage, of the Campaign for America’s Future, speaking about the war on terrorism observed, “The candidates don’t talk about how American policies may have helped to create the current state.  Americans are innocent of this debate because both parties ignore the question.”  Former Congressman and House Minority Whip David Bonior said that the reason foreign policy is finally an election issue is because “you can no longer separate foreign policy and domestic concerns.  The current debate on the $87 billion [aid package to Iraq] is all about domestic issues.”  Lexington mayor Teresa Isaac, an Arab American, concurred. “Mayors across the country are aware that if we have unwise and unfair foreign policy that could take tax dollars away from their cities.” 

AAI Chairman George Salem spoke of the vital role available for Arab Americans in the nation’s future.  “Currently Americans are asking tough questions about our country’s relationship with the rest of the world.  Arab Americans have a unique understanding of both the United States and the Arab world and can work to bridge the widening gap between the two.”  In addition, Arab Americans were encouraged to cast aside a fear of speaking out and to write to their local newspapers, visit their representatives in Congress, and become delegates to the national conventions.  Similarly, Arab Americans should not shy away from giving opinions on issues like health care, the environment, and the economy.  Said Rick Davis, Chair of Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, “in Michigan, people are affected by the economy and jobs.  Arab Americans can, and should, get involved in this debate.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, stressed to the audience that shaping public policy doesn’t always depend on your favorite candidates winning.  “Whether your candidate wins or loses, every election is an opportunity to change policy.” 

Arab American Empowerment
An important facet of the weekend was its bipartisan nature.  Arab Americans representing both ends of the political spectrum came together with a common cause: the empowerment of the Arab American community in both parties.  Rick Davis urged the group to “nurture bipartisanship.  It will give you clout and relevancy year after year.”  AAI’s George Salem agreed saying, “The fact that Arab Americans are able to come together as both Republicans and Democrats to fight for what is best for our country is a testament to the dedication and conviction of this community.”

  Senator John Kerry, who drew great applause for focusing his speech on the service of Arab Americans, especially the head of his New Hampshire campaign and long-time friend William Shaheen, said “The story of Arab Americans is the story of America, an immigrant people whose hard work and beliefs have made this nation great…On September 11th, 2001, terrorists attacked a nation conceived in liberty, built on justice, and founded on equality, a nation of immigrants, all of us, and we will fight, I will defend that nation, not give up the beliefs that make us who we are.”  Renowned pollster John Zogby, president of Zogby International, reminded the roused audience, “any group that can move hundreds or thousands of votes can help determine the next President or Congressman, so Arab Americans should feel empowered.” 

Rebecca Abou-Chedid
Public Affairs Coordinator
Arab American Institute
(202) 429-9210 x27
www.aaiusa.org

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