Arab-American Anger Over War in Iraq Could Weaken Bush in 2004

By Ori Nir

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — The war against Iraq is dramatically eroding President Bush’s support among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and could weaken his 2004 reelection prospects in states with sizeable Arab- and Muslim-American immigrant populations, such as Michigan and Florida, some experts say.

“I have told the White House and people in the Republican Party that if this president is their candidate next time, they might as well write off Muslims and most Arab Americans,” said Khalil Jahshan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Jahshan, who heads the lobbying arm of the largest Arab-American membership organization, said Arab Americans have always tended to vote Republican. But a special relationship between the Muslim community and the Republican Party was only formed recently, dating to the 2000 presidential campaign, during which George W. Bush became the first major presidential candidate to openly court Muslim voters.

During a campaign debate Bush used a question on civil rights to single out Arab Americans as victims of profiling, and his campaign worked hard in the Arab-American communities of Michigan and elsewhere.

Now, thanks to the administration’s strongly pro-Israel and anti-Iraq tilt, “there is a particularly deep sense of frustration there now,” Jahshan said.

Pollster John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, who is known as an expert on Arab and Muslim public opinion, said that 45% of Arab Americans voted for Bush in 2000 and 38% supported Democratic candidate Al Gore. Another 13% supported independent Ralph Nader, who is of Arab origin. Although he has no recent polling data, Zogby said he “would certainly venture an educated guess that Bush is hurt in the Arab-American community.” He observed that there is “a real concern [among Arab Americans] as to whether this administration understands the region, and thus far the sense is that it doesn’t.”

Both Jahshan and Zogby said that the Bush administration has lost credibility among most Arab and Muslim voters. The effect of the apparent disillusionment with Bush among this population is difficult to assess, however, because statistical data on Arab and Muslim Americans is inconclusive, and because the nature of America’s war in Iraq is still fluid.

Estimates of America’s Arab and Muslim populations are uncertain and controversial. The 2000 Census found 1.25 million Americans of Arab origin, though Zogby surveys point to a number at least twice that. Significantly, more than half of all Arab Americans are Christians, mostly of Lebanese origin.

The American Muslim population is commonly estimated by Muslim advocacy groups to be between 5 million and 7 million. However, independent estimates tend to be much lower; counting between a half-million and a million Arab Muslims, a roughly equal number of Pakistani and other Asian Muslims and some half-million black Muslims, most non-Muslim experts cite figures between 2.5 million and 3.5 million.

It is unclear what proportion of that group would identify with the anger cited by Jahshan and others in response to the war in Iraq.

Republican activists tend to dismiss the predictions of slippage. “The central question is, do you expect the Arab-American and Muslim-American vote to shift on the basis of a foreign policy issue, and I would argue no,” said Grover Norquist, a Republican consultant with strong ties to the Arab and Muslim communities.

The warnings of a political backlash, Norquist said, come from foreign policy activists with an axe to grind and do not reflect demographic reality. “Muslims in the U.S. are Pakistani and they are Iranian,” Norquist said. “Pakistanis tend to vote Republican for Cold War reasons. As for Iranian Americans, he added, “they vote overwhelmingly Republican for the same reason that Cubans do — because there was a weak Democratic president who gave their country to crazy people.” As for Arab Americans, he said, most have been here for several generations and have weakened ties to their homelands.

Some Arab Americans also question the likelihood of a backlash. James Zogby, president of Washington’s Arab-American Institute — and brother of pollster John Zogby — said that the Arab-American community is diverse both in party loyalties and views on the war. On the war, Zogby said, polling data shows that approximately 60% of Arab Americans oppose the war and about 40% support it.

Furthermore, Zogby said, approximately 80% of the community, particularly the American-born, assimilated segment, is traditionally split between Democrats and Republicans, with a slight advantage to the GOP. The swing-vote is the roughly 20% who are new immigrants, who in 2000 strongly supported Bush. Fifty percent of Arab-American immigrants voted for Bush, 28% for Gore and 18% for Nader.

What would affect loyal Republican Arab-American voters, Zogby said, is a drawn-out siege of Baghdad. “If that happens, if Baghdad is wounded for a long period of time, if it begins to penetrate into the deep culture of people who define their ethnicity as Arab, then it would have impact,” he said.

For many, however, the war poses a deep dilemma right now. “This is a case where my country is at war with my people,” said Jahshan. A Palestinian raised in the Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth, Jahshan said that the experience, while distasteful, was not unfamiliar to him. However, he said, once he moved to the United States he did not expect to experience it again.

Such emotional dissonance was evident in conversations at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque March 21 in suburban Falls Church, Va. Under tight security, thousands of local Muslims — most of them immigrants from the Middle East — attended the weekly prayer in three shifts. Between services they shared their frustrations and dismay at the televised sights of Baghdad, a city that symbolizes Islam’s golden age, being pounded by the country they chose to live in.

Muhammad, an engineering student at Northern Virginia Community College who declined to give his last name, said: “I love this country. I was born in America and can’t imagine living anywhere else, but I hate to see what it is doing in Iraq.”

Inside the mosque another young man was collecting donations for Iraqi children, and selling $20 tickets for an emergency fundraising event at George Washington University the next day. Several men in the entrance hall were reading free copies of Al Zaitonah, an Arabic-language biweekly published by the Islamic Association for Palestine, an organization that American intelligence sources believe is linked to the Hamas terrorist group. Two opinion articles in the current issue of Al Zaitonah linked Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to the likely American occupation of Iraq, suggesting that the Bush administration’s Middle East agenda is gradually becoming identical to that of Israel’s.

Beyond electoral considerations, some point to a danger of radicalization as a result of the emerging identification during the last year between the United States and Israel. “It’s definitely something that has been a source of a lot of consternation in the community,” said Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “This identification becomes extremely dangerous because there is this extremist rhetoric, the bin-Ladenite rhetoric about Arabs and Muslims being under concerted attack by ‘Crusaders’ and Jews. It plays perfectly into that rhetoric. If you wanted to paint a scenario that would give that rhetoric a sudden and totally undeserved birth and credibility — where it used to only have an appeal on the margins of public opinion — I fear that many more people will say: ‘maybe that bearded weirdo had a point.’”

It is too early to tell if the war will radicalize Arab Americans, said Georgetown University sociologist Yvonne Haddad, a leading authority on Arab Americans. But Haddad agreed the war will all but obliterate whatever gains Bush and the Republicans made among voters of Arab origin. “Most Arabs think that this is not a just war,” she said.

In the end, however, the net electoral effect remains unclear, said Thomas Mann of Washington’s Brookings Institution. “It is true that this could be a factor in states where Arab Americans are strategically-located, such as Michigan, but then you have to look to see what other cross-cutting changes are occurring to know whether it will have any political significance.”

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