Anxiety in Arab-American heartland as US election draws near
WASHINGTON - Members of the oldest Arab-American community in the United States said they are concerned as the US presidential election draws near following a bitter and divisive campaign.
A defeat for the Republican Party candidate Donald Trump, who has voiced anti-immigrant and anti- Muslim rhetoric throughout the campaign and is trailing in polls, could spark a violent response by his disappointed followers who “could harm us”, said Michigan-based Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director of the American Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC). “There are already hate crimes against Arab Americans, persons getting attacked,” Ayoub said.
Michigan has been home to immigrants from the Middle East since the late 1800s and Henry Ford’s car production started to attract more and more workers in the first decades of the 20th century. Today, about 500,000 Arab Americans live in the state, the Arab American Institute (AAI) said. About one-in-three citizens of Dearborn, a large suburb of Detroit, is of Arab descent.
Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, said the polarisation of the campaign will not go away quickly. “This hate and these extreme views are going to be with us. The election season is not going to end this debate,” Jaber said.
Trump shocked many Arab Americans by describing Muslims as potential national security threats, calling for an immigration ban for people from Iraq and Syria and publicly feuding with the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in action in Iraq. Those positions resonated strongly among Trump’s core constituency, white Christian males.
Although some Arab Americans said they plan to vote for Trump, most say they support his Democratic Party rival, Hillary Clinton, even though her strong pro-Israel positions make her a less than ideal candidate for Arab voters. There was not much difference between Trump and Clinton, said Zakaria Khalaf, secretary-general of the Arab American and Muslim Congress in Southfield, Michigan. But, on balance, “we find more in Clinton”, he said.
Ismael Ahmed, an AAI board member who is running for a seat on Michigan’s State Board of Education, said Arab Americans did not see Clinton as a “perfect vessel” but much preferred her over Trump. “This is a no-brainer for us,” he said.
Ahmed said the Clinton campaign invited him to speak at several rallies in the state, something he said he thinks happened as Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric “forced the other side to come forward”.
In a recent AAI poll, 60% of Arab- American respondents expressed support for Clinton and 26% for Trump. Overall in Michigan, as of November 1st, Clinton led Trump 44.8% to 38.5%, a poll average by the website RealClearPolitics indicated.
November 8th is not only the day of the presidential vote but also the election of all 435 members of the US House of Representatives and about one-third of the US Senate, as well as many elections for state offices. Ahmed said an increasing number of Arab Americans were running for positions in the judiciary or for local or state office this year.
He noted that violent confrontations between Trump supporters and members of his community were on the rise. “We call it the Trump effect,” he said. “Elements among the Trump supporters are acting out things that they would not have acted out if they had not been freed by Trump’s rhetoric.”
Arab Americans in Michigan are not the only ones who are concerned. Sarab al-Jijakli, the founding director of the Network of Arab American Professionals (NAAP), said the divisiveness of Trump’s campaign had produced a polarisation unseen in American political life. “This is an American concern that goes beyond Arab Americans,” said Jijakli, who lives in New York. “This is not just an issue for us.”
He said the most vulnerable representatives of Arab Americans, such as newly arrived refugees and women wearing the veil, were especially at risk of being harassed by extremists. “Bigots won’t come and attack me, a 6-foot-tall male,” he said.
Demographic shifts could be one reason for the bitterness of the campaign. Some observers say Trump’s support among white voters is a response to a feeling that their ethnic group, which has dominated the United States since the 18th century, is losing power. The US Census Bureau expects whites in the country will no longer be in the majority after 2045 because of non-white immigration and higher birth rates among minority groups.
Jaber said current developments were the beginning of a debate triggered by those demographic changes. Today’s America is “less white, more of a mix, more of many cultures” than in the past and the country must confront that fact, he said.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul
This article was first published in The Arab Weekly