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Gary Younge
Under siege since 9/11, Arab voters shift to Kerry

Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, is the hub of Arab America. When the car plants of the Motor City had attracted all the labour they could from African-Americans fleeing tyranny and poverty in the deep south, they went for those fleeing poverty and war from the global south.

And just as African-Americans brought gospel and turned it into Motown, so Arab-Americans are blending the culture of the old country with that of their new home.

You will find more Arab-Americans in California and New York, but you will not find a greater concentration of them than here. One in three people in Dearborn is of Arab origin; Detroit is the biggest Iraqi city outside Iraq.

It is by no means typical. "Unlike anywhere else in America, you could live your whole life in Dearborn in an Arab-American bubble," says Jennifer Salan of the Arab American Institute (AAI).

But, where electoral politics are concerned, it is important. The latest tracking poll shows the Democrats leading by four percentage points in the swing state of Michigan; Arab-Americans comprise 5% of the state's vote.

By luck rather than design Arab-Americans are a sizeable force in many swing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In a third of the states needed to win the electoral college, Arab-Americans make up more than the gaps between the two parties.

What is more they are up for grabs. In 2000 they backed George Bush. This year they are leaning half-heartedly towards his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. In a close race which will be decided in just a few places, Arab-Americans are a rare and precious phenomenon: a swing constituency in several swing states.

"In an election this close any small group makes a difference and this is one of them," says James Zogby, the head of the AAI. "The way the polls look now will represent about 200,000 votes going from Republican to Democrat. What a party loses in one place they have to pick up somewhere else."

"It's not a community that any party has a lock on," says Ismael Ahmed, the executive director of Access, the biggest Arab-American social services agency in the country, which is based in Dearborn. "Especially a community like this one where 60% weren't born here. We're not really committed to either party."

And so it was that the Arab American Political Action Committee (Aapac) endorsed Mr Bush in 2000, leftwing campaigner Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primaries, and Mr Kerry for president.

"We were motivated when we backed Bush and we are motivated now," says Osama Sablini, Aapac's chairman and publisher of the Arab American newspaper, who backed Mr Bush four years ago. "The Bush administration has been a major disappointment to this community and we cannot afford four more years of this."

To understand their initial enthusiasm for Mr Bush we must go back to the presidential debate in St Louis four years ago, when Mr Bush opposed the profiling of Arab-Americans. "Arab-Americans are racially profiled on what's called secret evidence," he said. "People are stopped. And we've got to do something about that." That was "not the American way", he said.

"You have to ask yourself why it took such a small thing to secure our votes," says Jumana Judeh, vice-chair of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, who wanted to endorse Al Gore in 2000.

"Someone recognised our votes. Someone noticed us. We're the new kid on the block and the new kid is going to get kicked around the block until they stick up for themselves and then people move on to someone else."

Add to that the fact that Mr Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, was pro-Israel, and the Republicans looked to many like the best bet.

"A lot were opposed because he was so pro-Israel and then some were against him because he was Jewish and they thought he couldn't see beyond that," says Ms Judeh.

On polling day Mr Bush beat Mr Gore by 45% to 38% while the independent candidate, Ralph Nader (who is of Lebanese descent), received 13%.

Then came September 11. While none of the hijackers had American citizenship and Dearborn is home to few Saudis, the community felt besieged. Under Mr Bush not only profiling, but detentions, investigations and deportations became the American way for Arab-Americans.

"We were targeted in our houses, in our bank accounts, in charities and in our in our mosques," says Zouhair Abdelhak, a Democrat supporter who owns a jewellery shop.

"It was a total sea change," says Mr Ahmed. "It raised us from below the radar to a focused-on group and put us literally physically at risk. Hate crimes went up five-fold. At the same time we went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq. And we were told that this is a war without end. All of that makes Arab-Americans feel at risk."

With a sizeable proportion of Iraqi Shias in the the community, there was a split over removing Saddam Hussein by force. But those rifts have been mended by opposition to the manner in which the occupation has been handled.

Accusing Mr Bush of betrayal, the Arab- American community started shopping around for another candidate.

Most backed Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. When Mr Kerry emerged the winner they went with him.

Initially they were enthusiastic. A poll of Arab-Americans by the AAI taken in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in July showed Mr Kerry leading Mr Bush by 54% to 24% with Mr Nader on 13%. By last month Mr Kerry's lead had almost halved, down from 30 points to 18, with a large number of undecideds. Some fear Mr Kerry could slide even further.

"There will be a ceiling for the president," says Mr Zogby. "And I think he's reached it. The question is do the rest vote for Kerry or not vote at all. Many of those in the undecided or even in the Nader category would switch to the Democrats, but have not yet found a reason to do so."


On Saturday, when the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, John Edwards, came to Detroit, Ms Judeh went to the gym. Earlier in the week, during the vice- presidential debate, Mr Edwards was asked: "What would your administration do to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?"

Mr Edwards said: "First, the Israeli people not only have the right to defend themselves, they should defend themselves. They have an obligation to defend themselves. What are the Israeli people supposed to do? How can they continue to watch Israeli children killed by suicide bombers, killed by terrorists?"

In a week in which Israel launched its bloodiest incursion into Gaza in four years, he did not mention Palestine once. "After I heard that I thought I'm not going to go out and cheer for him," says Ms Judeh, who attended the Democratic national convention this year.

"I was a loyal Democrat. I distributed the tickets. But I wasn't going to go. We don't expect them to be pro-Palestinian. But they won't even say 'We support a just peace in the Middle East'."

So while there is much loathing for Mr Bush, there is little love, as yet, for Mr Kerry.

"They are not giving us anything to work with at a grassroots level," says Fay Beydoun, who runs the AAI's branch in Michigan. "People are very anti-Bush but we need to motivate them to go out and vote for Kerry and Edwards and they don't make it easy."

In a community where alienation from the mainstream is pervasive, Republicans tell a similar story, particularly with regard to the Middle East and civil liberties.

"We disagree with the administration on them not dealing with the Palestinian leadership," says Jawad Allawi, a Republican businessman. "You shouldn't give the other side a passport to kill people because those people have a bad leader... But I don't think any administration in the last 50 years has been even-handed in the region."

Muhannad Haimour, who works for Access and recently founded a newspaper, Forum and Link, believes the community should have held out for more concrete promises before giving its endorsement. "The community should have said, 'No you are not going to take our vote for granted'. If we have to throw our votes away then so be it. Instead, we're just going to just give our votes to them. If I vote at all I will vote for Nader as a protest," he says.

An hour later he is challenged as to what he will do if wakes up to find Mr Bush has won by one vote.

"Well, I know, in the end I will vote for Kerry. I won't want to. Until the day of the election I will protest.

"But when I get into the booth I think I will have to because the prospect of four more years of Bush is more than we can take."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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