Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

AND OTHERS                       
                                                    by Ronald Stockton

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals: Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals: Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others




























































































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 When Americans think of Muslims, they think of four things: First, they tend to equate Arab with Muslim. In fact, most Muslims are not Arabs, and many Arabs are not Muslims. In the United States today, there are perhaps three million Arab Americans, probably half of them are Christian. In the Detroit area, we have over 250,000 people of Arab origin, and about 55-60 percent of them are Christian. Many Muslims in this country are Pakistani, Iranian, African, or something else.

   Likewise, some people from the Arab world have pre-Arab identities and may not consider themselves Arab. Among them would be Egyptians, Copts, Lebanese Maronites, and Iraqi Chaldeans.

Second, Americans tend to think of Arabs and Muslims in terms of the Middle East and particularly the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While there is a definite Middle East dimension to their identity, there is much more to their identity and understanding than simply the Middle East.

  Third, when we think of Islam, there's an unhealthy fixation by certain writers on Saudi Arabia or Osama bin Laden. American Muslims are upset by such leaps of often-hostile over-representation. Islam is a diverse religion with five major legal schools and a variety of positions on the issues. Many Muslims are secular; others we might call pietistic. Few see Islam in terms of revolutionary politics.

Finally, Americans tend to see Muslims mostly in terms of ancient religious texts. This takes them out of history, which is often the first step in hostile stereotyping.

 To understand Arab and Muslim politics, we have to think of organization. When Arabs first began coming to this country in large numbers a century ago, their first organizations were local and communal. They formed churches and mosques and village associations. It was not until 1967 that there was a national Arab American organization, the AAUG, an organization of intellectuals.

In 1973, the National Association of Arab Americans was formed. It was rooted in the business and commercial communities, rather than the ethnic communities, and it also engaged in political activities.

The Abscam scandal of 1978 sparked a new organization, the Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), under the leadership of former Senator James Abourezk, South Dakota. Abscam occurred when the FBI was trying to catch a corrupt Senator and told one of their agents to not shave for a few days, put a sheet on his head, gave him an Iranian name, and passed him off as a Lebanese oil sheikh. The senator should have gone to jail for stupidity. This really upset Arab Americans, so they formed ADC, which was designed to fight discrimination and stereotyping.

In the 1980s, two other organizations were formed. The Arab American Institute, formed by James Zogby, encourages people to run for office and to vote. It is not partisan. A recent statement by Zogby said Arab Americans are more likely to vote than the general population. If this is correct, it is a remarkable development.

The Council on Arabic Islamic Relations (CAIR) has a very good e-mail information service. They'll send you daily news items.  It's a very good source.

I would go to the Arab American Institute for demographic data. My impression is they have the best data. Jay Dobie is the head of that. He would have his data, plus they work very closely with the Census Department.

So far there have been five Arab American senators, Abourezk and Abdnor of South Dakota, Abraham of Michigan, Mitchell of Maine, and Sununu of New Hampshire. All of these are Lebanese Christians, by the way.  There are now several Arab members of the House of Representatives, California being the most prominent in the news today.

Arab Americans have traditionally voted Democratic. The party’s appeal to minorities, the civil rights tradition, and the Oslo Accords all played a role. In 2000, however, the community gave a plurality of its votes to George Bush. During the presidential debate, Bush was asked about racial profiling. He said we had to make our protections comprehensive, for example, by addressing the profiling of Arab Americans. When he said those words, he shifted several thousand votes into his camp and made Michigan competitive.

There are several issues that pull Arabs to the Republican Party: the prominence of small business in the community, the symbolic affirmation the party gives to religion, law and order issues, the fact that Bush is anti-Syria and anti-Saddam, and the fact that Bush stood up to Yitzhak Shamir.

Still, this will not be enough in 2004. John Ashcroft, Homeland Security, secret evidence, deportations, the Iraq War, and the Sharon-Bush alliance are enough to drive many away. The recent Zogby poll (July 2003) showed that only 43 percent of American Muslims gave the president a positive rating (compared with 60 percent of the general population). On Middle East issues, his rating was even lower at 39-56 percent.

So, Bush has basically lost the Arab vote.

How do journalists cover the community? Most members of the community feel that the local media are fair to them and do a good job covering their affairs. The first-time traveling journalist, however, sent in on a flying trip to do a story is another type of bird.    

Many Arab Americans, especially Muslims, feel that the national media is unfair to them, that it is both pro-Israeli and anti-Arab. To be honest, I suspect they're thinking about opinion makers, rather than legitimate news reporters. Yet, they believe that Jews are inordinately represented in opinion formation in this country, and that this affects both coverage and public policy.

I have two anecdotes to tell about good and bad reporting. Two days after September 11, my campus held a service of reflection. Someone from a national newspaper called about the event. He wanted a picture, which we sent. The picture was not what he wanted because “it did not have a Muslim in it.” Our Information Officer pointed out that the female at the microphone was a Muslim, the president of the Arab Student Union. The reporter was not impressed. No scarf, no Muslim.

Another reporter called a few weeks later and asked if there was anything happening on campus. We told him definitely, yes. Our students are talking to each other and creating a model community. Not interested, was the response. But if you have some clashes, get back to me. No conflict, no story.

Remember that the Arab community is actually a complex of communities. It's internally differentiated along four major fault lines.

One of these is religion. Not only are there Christians and Muslims, but subgroups of each of those: Maronites, Copts, Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, and Druze, to name a few.

Second, people come from different countries and different hometowns. In Detroit, we have Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and others. Some people have homelands in conflict with those of others.

A third cleavage exists between recent immigrants and those born in the U.S. Some families have been here for a century. They are very different from each other and they largely don't interact. 

Finally, there are class differences.

The subgroups are very different from each other, live in different places, move in different circles, marry along different lines, and vote differently.

 But it is organizations that mobilize voters, raise money, and influence policy. In politics, if you're not organized, you do not count. In the Detroit area, there are village organizations, country organizations, and professional class organizations—merchants, doctors, lawyers, business people.

There are also religious organizations such as mosques and churches. While the religious organizations are friendly to anyone who joins them, they often draw from one subgroup or another. One mosque may be mostly Lebanese Shia; another Iraqi Shia; another mostly Yemeni.

 During campaigns, candidates can't visit a mosque and think they did a mosque thing. They have to visit multiple mosques lest they be seen as taking sides in whatever rivalries exist.

There are also community-wide organizations such as the ADC and the Arab American Chamber of Commerce.

            And there are powerful service agencies. One of these is called ACCESS and the other is called the Arab American and Chaldean Council. These organizations have major corporate, government, and political linkages, and their annual dinners draw top political leaders, including governors and senators. They are major political players.

If you want to know something about the way politics operate, look at these organizations.

Even though Detroit has fewer Arab Americans than Los Angeles, Detroit is logically the focus because Arabs there are better organized and more politically influential. If you want to find out the impact of Arab Americans on presidential politics, Michigan is probably the place to be. There is no other place where they are in a position to affect the outcome.

The political environment for Arab American participation is sometimes unfriendly. There are probably three reasons. If your name is Djemal Zeitoun, you have much less chance of election than if your name is James Oliver.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center (July 24, 2003), additionally, shows that 44 percent of Americans think Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, up from 25 percent in 2002.  Disturbingly, this pattern holds when education is controlled. Moreover, 38 percent say they would be reluctant to vote for a qualified Muslim candidate.

Finally, many Muslims and Arabs face active resistance to their involvement. There have been several cases of persons appointed to advisory committees or staff positions having their appointments challenged on the grounds that they have made anti-Israeli statements or that they associated people with such views. Some candidates have even returned their donations. This is true of both Christians and Muslims. So it's not just anti-Islamic.

Some story ideas: Arab Americans have always served in the armed forces, and the U.S. intelligence is actively recruiting. Several students have asked me to write references for positions in U.S. intelligence. When Paul Wolfowitz visited Dearborn just before the Iraq War, he met with the local Iraqi Shia community and offered citizenship to anyone who would join the military.

Recently, I received a telephone call for help in finding out which mosques receive financial support from Saudi Arabia. This was from a reporter with whom I had worked before, but I had to tell him his task was hopeless. Not only did I not have an answer to his question, I could not encourage him to waste his time trying to finding out such information. With the exceptionally hostile attacks on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, no one was going to admit getting Saudi money, even if the donation was as pure as Caesar's wife. Anti-Arab commentators would leap upon such information as proof of something evil.

Most Middle East countries have a Ministry of Religion that can distribute money to overseas Muslims. In the 1980s, one of our local churches received a very large donation from Saddam Hussein for a building program. At the time, it was innocent, but after 9/11 it became tainted money.

The community is very nervous about being accused of supporting terrorism. When the government closed down the Holy Land Foundation and deported Rabia Haddad of Ann Arbor, it shook the confidence of many Muslims. Most people donating to those organizations did not see them as terrorist-front groups. They viewed them as mainstream.

I also know of another person who raised money to rebuild a hospital that had been bombed in Lebanon. The FBI got him and put him in jail.

The problem is that the definition of terrorism is loosely defined and very slippery. I have a friend who is a civil rights attorney. He says the government systematically prosecutes Arab Americans as criminals for tax or other violations that would typically get a fine or a tax penalty. He feels that the law is being used to engage in political and ethnic harassment. This is a story that deserves to be covered.

 Now, Mark said to tell you something that I would like to know, myself. Would you please find prominent Arabs who endorse Bush and who endorse whoever the Democrat is and find out what their motivation is?