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Analysis: Arab Americans remain politically silent

Dec. 3, 2012 1:48 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 6, 2012 8:10 P.M.)
By: Abdul-Hakim Salah
The Arab community in the United States is still politically silent, even though they have in many ways assimilated into American culture, and in what the country’s founding fathers liked to call the melting pot.

To a Palestinian visitor, they are easily distinctive as Arab Americans rather than Arabs, speaking with an American accent, eating American food, wearing Americans clothes, and so on.

About four million Arabs are living in all 50 states, mostly concentrated in Detroit Metropolitan Area which has about half a million Arab Americans, according to the 2010 US census.

Though their number is not very large, theoretically Arab Americans can play a political role, and possibly affect the outcome of US elections, or at least make their voice heard.

However, most of the Arab Americans I met as I visited Washington DC and Ohio during 2012 elections, are not concerned about politics, nor do they cast ballots, for many different reasons.

Adnan Awwad, in his late twenties, who lives in Toledo, Ohio, says he and his seven brothers living in the US do not cast their votes because they know that no matter who is elected, US policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict does not change.

"It is not the president who takes decisions, but rather the institution," he told me.

Similarly, Yousif in his sixties and originally from Lebanon, highlighted after Friday prayers in a small mosque in Toledo that “US Middle East policy will not change by changing the ruling party.”

"Politics is a dirty game," he said. Yousif also highlighted that Arab countries have different interests rather than one united pan-Arab national interest, and that is echoed amongst Arab Americans.

Meanwhile, Anas, a young man from Lebanon I met at a shopping center in Toledo, said his father might go to cast a vote in order to support the "lesser evil."

Nevertheless, Dr Samir Abu Absi, professor Emeritus of English at Toledo University, believes the majority of Arab Americans actually do vote.

Abu Absi is editor and co-author of 'Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement', a book which won Evelyn Shakir Non-fiction Award in 2011.

Asked what key factors affect Arab Americans when they cast their votes, he said "obviously the US Middle East policy is a major, if not the major factor."

"The economy is another major factor, given that quite a few Arab Americans are in business for themselves, and the state of economy has a direct effect on their lives and livelihoods."

According to Dr. Abu Absi, a segment of Arab Americans believe US Middle East policy will not change no matter who wins elections, but the vast majority "weigh their options very carefully and vote for the person who is more likely to understand the issues and work toward improved relations with the Middle East."

Dr. Abu Absi agreed that Arab Americans differ in their interests. "Considering that there are 22 members of the League of Arab States, it is not surprising to see that Arab Americans have slightly different interests," he said.

"However, I believe that the existence of various Arab American organizations has helped in defining an Arab American identity and shared visions for the future."

The contrast between the Arab-American community and other minority communities could not be more great.

After decades of slavery in the 18th and the 19th centuries, African Americans became part of the "melting pot" including in the political arena. In 2008, 143 years after the thirteenth amendment of the constitution which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, the first African American president was sworn in.

Barack Hussein Obama, whose father is from Kenya, was then elected for a second term in 2012, representing the Democratic Party after he achieved a landslide victory against his Republican competitor Mitt Romney.

Encouraged by the success African Americans have achieved, the Latino community is now looking forward to achieving their presidency dream, especially after analysts and onlookers highlighted the major role Latinos people played in Obama’s 2012 win.

It has now become safe to say that it is only a matter of time for the United States to have the first Hispanic president.

The political reluctance and disunity of Arab Americans, by contrast, could be a reflection of old fears of politics carried by the first Arab immigrants from their countries of origin decades, before they had emerged from the Arab Spring revolutions.

After all, an overwhelming majority of these people left their countries seeking better economic conditions, and fleeing dire political situations created by totalitarian regimes which dedicated huge efforts and security services to oppress their own people.

Oppression in these countries reached an unbelievable degree that very close friends would not dare to discuss political issues beyond a certain level, and one of the most famous sayings was "the walls have ears."

When I was a teenager, I used to hear Palestinians who had studied or worked in other Arab nations giving advice to those wanting to follow in their path.

"When you go to restaurants beware of everybody wearing glasses. All of them are informants," they said.

"Taxi drivers will try to trick you into criticizing the government, so to be on the safe side, try to be deaf and dumb."

As for disunity and diversity of interests, Arabs, and eventually Arab Americans, seem to need centuries to overcome that, if ever.

Thus, the concept of Arab unity which has been on every Arab League leader’s lips for decades was for the adornment of public speech, just like proverbs.

If only some Arab-Americans were seriously politically-engaged, Israel would not have dared to do what it has done, and is still doing, to the Palestinians.
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