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U.S.: Arabs, Muslims Seek A Voice At U.S. Democratic Convention

  • Robert McMahon

Arab- and Muslim-Americans constitute a small but potentially influential electoral bloc in this year's U.S. presidential elections. They are clearly a more visible presence at the Democratic National Convention in Boston than in past party gatherings. But they appear to be more galvanized against Republican President George W. Bush than demonstrably for the policies espoused by presumptive Democratic Party candidate John Kerry.

Boston, 28 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first time Maya Berry attended a national convention of the Democratic Party 12 years ago, she carried a banner proclaiming the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

That earned Berry, an Arab-Muslim American, the close surveillance of convention security guards and, she says, a sense of alienation from fellow delegates:

"When I was here in 1992, I was certainly much younger and less seasoned politically," Berry said. "But at the same time, I felt considerably isolated in terms of being Arab-American at the convention. It just was very different than it is now."

At this year's convention, support of Palestinian statehood is part of the Democrats' platform for the first time. Arab-Americans are now an established ethnic caucus of the party, with 43 delegates attending the convention. They are seen as an influential voting bloc in several key states where President Bush and Senator Kerry are close in opinion polls.

Berry, a delegate from Michigan, says there is much more inclusiveness of Arab-Americans this year than in past conventions. But the party must work hard, she said, to attract a loyal voting bloc in key states where many ethnic Arabs live, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.
There are more than 2 million Muslims eligible to vote in the United States, but only about 57 percent of them are registered.

"These key constituencies are going to matter," Berry said. "So, is the Kerry campaign paying attention to it? Absolutely. Do I think they can do more? Absolutely."

Berry's views echo those of a number of Arab- and Muslim-Americans interviewed by RFE/RL at the Democratic Party convention in Boston. Many of them said Bush ostracized Arabs and Muslims in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks by expanding the FBI's powers to investigate individuals and through greater use of secret evidence and secret detentions.

They also expressed concern at the administration's war in Iraq, saying it has eroded relations with allies and stirred up resentment in the Middle East.

The Democratic Party platform this year calls for revisions to the USA PATRIOT Act, a controversial antiterrorism law, to "better protect the privacy and liberty that law-abiding Americans cherish." The platform also says the Bush administration rushed to war in Iraq without adequate international support and that the administration exaggerated the connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the evidence that he possessed weapons of mass destruction.

These positions have broad support among Arab-Americans at the convention, but a number of them say they are not satisfied with the party's official stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The convention platform, while supporting Palestinian statehood, also explicitly backs the policies pursued by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Prominent Arab-American pollster John Zogby told RFE/RL that the Democratic Party's position on Israeli-Palestinian issues essentially reiterates the policy of the Republican Party. He said a more proactive Middle East peace policy by the Kerry campaign would do more to ensure the support of Arab voters.

"As far as Arab-Americans are concerned, with a few points aside -- like the Patriot Act and like the economy, health care, and domestic issues -- the biggest thing John Kerry has going for him is that he's not George W. Bush," Zogby said.

Zogby said his organization's regular polling of 16 so-called "battleground" states shows the presidential race remains very close. Democrats this year, he said, have an opportunity to cut into the support Bush enjoyed among Arab-Americans in the 2000 election against Vice President Al Gore.

"Every group is important," Zogby said. "Arab-Americans are particularly important to Democrats because, last time, about 45 percent voted for George W. Bush. This time, if Kerry can pick up that Arab-American vote, that can be enough in some key states."

A poll conducted earlier this month by the Arab American Institute in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida found only 24 percent of Arab-Americans would vote for Bush. The poll said 51 percent supported Kerry and 13 percent supported independent candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent. More than 500,000 Arab-Americans in those states are expected to vote in November.

Arabs represent about one-third of Muslim-Americans, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group that promotes understanding of Islam in the United States. The council estimates there are close to 7 million Muslims in the country, although estimates vary because the national census does not include religious designations.

The council four years ago conducted exit polls among Muslims who voted in the presidential elections and found huge support for Bush over Gore. That was, in part, because the conservative family values Bush supported were seen as attractive.

This year, the council has found that Nader is the only presidential candidate reaching out to Muslim-American voters, said council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

Hooper told RFE/RL that Republicans have virtually ignored Muslim voters and Democrats have shown only low-level interest.

"I don't know if the Democrats yet regard the Muslim vote as a key voting bloc, and they may even view it as a handicap by trying to reach out to Mus[lims]," Hooper said.

The Muslim Electorate Council of America has conducted a study that found that there are more than 2 million Muslims eligible to vote in the United States, but only about 57 percent of them are registered. The number is divided almost equally among African-American Muslims, Muslims with Arab roots, and Muslims with South Asian roots.