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The Arab American vote

Fatima Cheikh-Jaffal is a mother of two, a full-time employee of a local bank in the suburbs of Detroit. She describes herself as a  conservative Muslim who voted for George Bush in 2000 but now is reconsidering. “I’m angry that the way our country has taken form in the last four years. We’re not living the American dream. Nobody is,” says Cheikh-Jaffal.

Fatima is one of 3.5 million Arab-Americans, a fast-growing voting bloc who turn out to vote more than the national average and could have a major impact in this year’s election. 

In the 2000 elections, a majority of Arab-Americans supported George Bush. But recent polls suggest a big reversal: Now, John Kerry holds an 18-point advantage over the president among Arab voters in the key battleground states of Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

James Zogby, a Kerry advisor and founder of the Arab American Institute, says Bush has lost more support than John Kerry’s necessarily gained. “By default, Kerry becomes the recipient of a whole lot of support that would otherwise have been split between the candidates,”  he says.

Why the shift? Many Arab-Americans say its because of administration policies since 9/11, including:

  • The Patriot Act—designed to fend off terrorist acts in the U.S., but very unpopular with Arabs who feel they are targeted unfairly,
  • The war in Iraq—removing Saddam was a victory, but not the post-war occupation and Arab resentment in the Middle East toward the US remains strong
  • and US support for Israel

The  Bush and Kerry campaigns are so concerned about winning Arab voters they’ve been courting the support of religious leaders like Detroit’s Imam Hassan Qazwini, guide to thousands of Muslims and a big political player who says no candidate stands out.

“There is no ideal candidate for us,” says Hassan Qazwini. “But we have to be realistic. We have to look and see which candidate can be either good to us or less harmful,” he says.

Bush advisors believe they can still win the Arab-American vote. But in the post-9/11 world, many Arab-Americans say this year, their most important issue is which candidate will do more to protect  their civil rights at home.