At a time when discord roils the Middle East and the United States faces an energy crisis, it should not go unnoticed that President George W. Bush received a majority of the Arab-American vote, a constituency that in the past has leaned Democratic. He then appointed former U.S. senator from Michigan Spencer Abraham, an Arab-American, as his secretary of energy. "Really, Bush and [Dick] Cheney did a good job here," Abdulwahab Alkebsi, deputy director of the American Muslim Council, tells Insight. "They are shoring up the Arab vote. It was a real stroke of genius to appoint an Arab-American to the post that works with the Middle East."
The Republican Party has close ties to Israel but, surprisingly or not, Bush's relationship with Arab-Americans was not an accident. Karl Rove, his chief campaign strategist, was in touch with the Arab-American community early and often during the campaign. Al Gore had surged in the polls after the Democratic convention and Rove came to Washington in September to plan his man's next moves in hopes of regaining the lead in the presidential race. On his way to the airport to catch his flight back to Texas, Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute, joined Rove in his car.
Saffuri explained to him that the vote of the Arab-American community, which includes both Muslims and Christians, still was up for grabs. The community is prosperous and could be the source of considerable campaign contributions. If Bush would mention in public just a few of the issues that concern Arab-Americans, Saffuri told Rove, he would win their hearts, their minds and their support. Saffuri founded the Islamic Institute in 1998 in an effort to involve the Muslim community positively in the U.S. political process. Stereotypes of this community as wild-eyed terrorists had caused Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 to return campaign contributions from Arab-Americans. Even Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole canceled a meeting with them for the same reason in 1996. Rove wasn't so quick on the draw and he passed the word on to Bush. During the second presidential debate, Bush responded to a question about racial discrimination that "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped [in airports on suspicion] and we've got to do something about that."
He also mentioned his support for legislation sponsored by Abraham to repeal the secret-evidence act. Two weeks later, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council endorsed Bush for president. Last summer, 56 percent of Arab-Americans said they would vote for Gore while only 24 percent said they supported Bush. A Zogby poll taken at the end of November showed a reversal: 45 percent of Arab-Americans said they voted for Bush, while Gore drew only 38 percent of their vote. An exit poll taken on Election Day revealed that 72 percent of American Muslims had voted for Bush. This community that had existed largely at the margins of American politics now was receiving national attention. The Bush comment clearly got their attention. Sam Zakhem, a member of the Bush National Finance Committee and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, notes that it was Bush, himself, who reached out to Arab-Americans and the 6 million Muslims in the United States. Today, more than 3 million Arab Americans reside in the United States. Almost 75 percent are Christians and 23 percent are Muslims. Most are Lebanese followed by Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians. Their average annual income at $75,000 is well above the national average.
A Zogby poll indicates that issues of importance to them are detainment on secret evidence, airport profiling, the plight of Palestinian refugees and the need for a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As important, however, are domestic issues: Social Security, Medicare, crime, taxes, school vouchers and abortion. Interestingly, the Islamic Institute neither mentions international issues to its members nor discusses them in its literature. Saffuri tells Insight that the younger generation of Arab-American Muslims is concerned about domestic issues. While their parents still are interested in the political situation in the Middle East, younger Arabs want to learn how they can influence tax policy and educate their kids. The Islamic Institute holds regular briefings on Capitol Hill to let staff and members of Congress know how Arab-Americans feel about education, gun control and other issues. Abraham Torani calls this a paradigm shift. Torani worked for the Islamic Institute in Michigan to get out the vote. He tells Insight, "Now there is a total awareness that protesting from the outside does not get Muslims anywhere. By protesting and not voting you make a statement for sure. But by voting you make a difference." Michigan has one of the largest Arab-American populations in the United States; only New York and California having more.
Concentrated around the auto industry in southeast Michigan, these Arab-Americans found themselves being heavily catered to by the presidential campaigns for the first time. Bush and his national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, visited Michigan's Arab-Americans during the campaign. Gore, his wife, Tipper, and running mate Joseph Lieberman also paid them a visit. Arab American Institute (AAI) President James Zogby is a Lebanese-American and says that being courted like this is quite a switch from the treatment his community has received in the past from politicians. "I have been working on this issue in Washington for 24 years," Zogby tells Insight, "and when I came to town there were about six of us working on this." Now Arab-Americans are starting to be referred to as a voting bloc. For 15 years AAI has organized a massive voter-registration drive in the Arab-American community. Their 2000 voter-registration drive, called the "Yalla Vote," mobilized and educated Arab-Americans in nine states, sending AAI voter-registration guides to 100,000. The Democratic and Republican conventions counted nearly 60 Arab-American delegates between them.
Bush visited with the Michigan Arab-American community in Dearborn on Oct. 5, 2000, and mentioned airport profiling and secret evidence in the Wake Forest University presidential debate with Gore on Oct. 11, 2000. Several days later, Gore announced support for repeal of rules allowing terrorist suspects to be held on secret evidence. To reach Arab Muslims, the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim Alliance, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council together formed the American Muslim Political Coordination Council. They spent the spring and early summer organizing voter-registration and education drives. "We are able to get our message out to voters through the mosques," says Saffuri. The Islamic Institute's board chairman gave an islamic invocation at the Republican National Convention, the first time that has happened. Saffuri had met privately with Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson and the House Republican leadership to express the desire of his religious community to be included at the convention. Saffuri also had been instrumental in arranging a meeting of Muslim leaders with Bush at the Texas-governor's mansion in May 2000.
Similar requests for meetings went out to the Gore campaign but the response was much slower, says Saffuri. After the Islamic invocation at the Republican convention, the Democrats asked an imam from the Los Angeles area to pray at their convention. Gore also hired an Arab-American to be his national director for ethnic outreach. Born in Lebanon, Hady Amr took a leave of absence from his post as an economist at the World Bank to campaign for Gore. Amr tells Insight that Arab-Americans long have been excluded from the political mainstream. "But that can come to an end if this community is willing to struggle for political inclusion from inside America's political house," he says. Because of Amr's presence at its Nashville headquarters, the Gore campaign was the first to devote space on its Website to Arab-American issues. Amr points out that although many Arab and Muslim groups endorsed Bush, Gore won Michigan, California and New York where the Arab populations are most concentrated. Amr agrees with Torani of the Islamic Institute that Arab-Americans, and especially Muslim Americans, can make a bigger difference being involved in the process rather than protesting it. "If Arab and Muslim Americans had spent September and October working inside campaigns instead of demonstrating outside the White House, we could have greatly increased our political power and could be in a position to influence policy," Amr says. Republican professionals hope the presence in the Bush Cabinet of Spencer Abraham as secretary of energy will be a powerful influence indeed. Abraham is the first Arab-American to head the department that deals heavily with the Middle East and its oil production - an issue that affects every American.