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
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
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 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
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
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
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?