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U.S.: Arab-Americans See Their Political Influence Growing

  • Andrew Tully

Muslims and ethnic Arabs in America say their political influence is increasing. Once their votes were thought to have virtually no impact on government -- particularly the presidency. But RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with several experts who say it will not be long before they are capable of providing the winning margin for the leadership of the nation.

Washington, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Arab and Muslim Americans say the recent general election shows that they have increasing influence in American politics and someday could be the deciding factor in choosing a president.

For years, these two groups have been perceived as contributing a small part of the vote. But there are high concentrations of them in several states, including California, Michigan, Texas and Virginia.

These states also have many electoral votes, which are used to elect a president. California has 54 electoral votes, Michigan has 18, Texas has 32, and Virginia has 13. By comparison, Florida -- whose electoral votes will decide the current presidential race -- has 25.

But political analysts and officials of Muslim and Arab interest organizations in America say the two groups are distinct from each other. And they note that neither votes as a unified bloc -- at least not yet.

Today, each group numbers about 1 million, according to analysts and survey researchers interviewed by RFE/RL. Together, they number roughly 1.7 million because of the overlap of American Muslims of Arab descent.

Ibrahim Hooper is the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says the Muslims in America include people of many different ethnic backgrounds -- Pakistani, Indonesian, Iranian, and black. What unites them, he says, is their religious devotion. This gives them some unanimity on some social and cultural issues, if not economic or other political topics. They include the long-simmering dispute in America over legalized abortion, homosexual marriage, and the status of sites holy to Muslims in disputed areas of the Middle East.

Hooper says Muslims voting for candidates associated with these issues can have a great impact on a close election.

"Muslims will have an influence in key states such as California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey where things are fairly balanced between one [political] party and the other so that any swing group of voters is going to have an impact."

Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst at the Cato Institute -- a Washington think-tank -- is less convinced that Muslims can be singled out as an influential voting bloc. She says any group of about 1 million voters can be influential, but only in a very close election. She says this applies to Muslim Americans as well as environmentalists and even -- as she put it -- "left-handed pianists." But in an election that is not close, such distinctive voices are not likely to be heard.

Leo Ribuffo agrees. He is a professor of history and political science at George Washington University in Washington. Ribuffo says Muslim voters in America are today too small a group to have an influence on any but the closest elections.

But he says that if Muslims are inspired by a common issue, and if their numbers grow over the next generation, they will vote with more unity and wield more political influence. For example, Ribuffo says that today, Jews in America vote in a somewhat unified manner, but that has not always been true.

"Before World War II and the Holocaust, [American] Jews were a much less coherent [cohesive] group in terms of their voting patterns than they were afterwards. So if Muslim Americans felt particularly embattled -- either in the country or internationally -- that would draw them together."

Americans of Arab descent, on the other hand, are today even less unified as a voting bloc, according to John Zogby, the president of Zogby International, which conducts some of the highest-regarded public opinion polls in America.

Zogby says Arab-Americans are split somewhat equally into three religious groups -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim. He says they are also of widely different economic backgrounds. Some are wealthy, while others are recent immigrants whose jobs are governed by trade unions. These differences have political overtones. Wealthier businessmen tend to prefer the Republican Party and its agenda of reducing taxes and government regulation of commerce. Factory workers tend to favor the Democratic Party and its agenda of job protection and higher wages.

But one issue common to virtually all Arab-Americans is U.S. policy in the Middle East. Arab-Americans often accuse the administration of President Bill Clinton and his predecessors of favoring Israel at the expense of its Arab neighbors and Palestinians. For instance, the Arab American Institute -- a Washington-based group that promotes Arab interests in America -- also says the U.S. should make sure that the military sanctions on Iraq do not victimize the Iraqi people.

Beyond the Middle East, Zogby says, America's Arab voters can still become an influential voting bloc if they are drawn to the polls by other unifying issues.

Zogby agrees that America's Muslims and Arab-Americans make up distinctly different groups, even though they overlap and their populations are scattered over many states. But they can still be enormously influential in states like New York, Michigan, and California. He says the battle for the presidency between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida is a perfect example of the potential for Arab and Muslim political power in America.

"There are sufficient concentrations [of Arab Americans and Muslims] in several key states where either or both can play [a] significant role, and this [recent] election underscores that."

In other words, Zogby said, if the vote in the state of Michigan were too close to decide, as it is now in Florida, it could be Muslim or Arab Americans -- or both -- who could decide the presidency of the United States.

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