Young Arab American voters aren't a monolithic bloc

Young Arab American voters aren't the monolithic bloc the US thinks they are
8 min read
20 October, 2020
US Election 2020: Sharing a diverse range of social, political and economic concerns, young Arab Americans are dispelling the myth of a single-issue voting bloc.
The Arab American community is focused on a wide range of social and economic issues.[Getty]
Once she finished conducting field research in the Middle East, Syrian-American Salma Alshami, a Northwestern University doctoral student, came back home to the US. Shortly after, "the FBI showed up at my door," she said.

As a demographic, Arab Americans are not only a growing population but one that significantly identifies as Democrats.

When it comes to voting, a US foreign policy favourable to the Middle East is expected to be the backbone of their political engagement, despite a rise in progressive ideals within the Democrats.

During this presidential election young Arab Americans intend to capitalise on progressive politics to dispel the single-issue voting myth - all the while navigating through political cracks.

The Arab American Institute (AAI) estimates almost four million Arab Americans living in all 50 states. During the 2016 presidential election, another institute poll reported 91 percent of Arab Americans held voting intentions with half of the population saying they've faced discrimination. As for the most sought-after political issue, the economy reigned at number one.

More recently, policies like the Patriot Act and Trump's Muslim bans give Arabs reasons to feel ostracised but also compel them to engage in politics to advocate for themselves, said Alshami, a senior research specialist at the Arab Barometer, a multinational research network focused on social attitudes analysis of the Arab world.

As a demographic, Arab Americans are not only a growing population but one that significantly identifies as Democrats

On 22 July, the US House of Representatives voted 233-183 on a bill passing the Muslim ban's reversal, sending off the NO BAN Act to the Republican majority in the Senate for final review.

Other issues worry Alshami as well, like domestic surveillance of Arabs and Muslims. Candidates who are truly concerned about Arab issues, not those who appear to be progressive, are those who will get her attention.

"I don't want the continuation of Obama on a lot of things. Not the 'deporter-in-chief' immigration policies, not the drone policies, not the surveillance policies," Alshami said.

Read more: The long fight for MENA recognition in the
US census

"American politics are very much organised around identity," said Alshami, who is pursuing a doctoral degree at Northwestern University. "And when it's around the personality of a leader, that's a hallmark of dictatorship."

Politicians seem to view Arab voters as monolithic and that's insulting, she said, which keeps elected officials from viewing Arabs as complex citizens with complex needs for the future.

Although he's been criticised as a lesser choice than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by progressives, former Vice President Joe Biden broke the one-dimensional mould recently.

Biden spoke to Emgage Action in July, a Muslim American advocacy group, marking a rarity in US politics as it also means he directly engaged with a large portion of Arab Americans, too.

Instead of talking about terrorism, he addressed Islamophobia. Instead of asking for endorsements, he acknowledged that votes are earned. Biden posed a hopeful list of progressive politics if he were elected, but Arab Americans have a long memory for empty promises made to them. 

When President Trump was on the campaign trail, Michigan's Chaldean population, an ethnic group dating back to as early as 800 BC from modern day Iraq, voted him into office. Shortly after, the Chaldeans saw a rise in immigration crackdowns against them.

During this presidential election young Arab Americans intend to capitalise on progressive politics to dispel the single-issue voting myth

In January, knowing elections are just around the corner, President Trump promised the Chaldeans more leniency and less deportations.

For young Arab Americans this year, politicians face a more critical audience who hold their personal priorities closer than political promises.

"Being a non-single-issue voter doesn't mean that you don't have a priority. Two things can coexist," Alshami said. "I see myself in a broader spectrum; I care about foreign policy, I care about immigration, I care about education. Some things matter more than others but I care about a bigger picture."

For others, the bigger picture means bigger change and Jad Blaik, 20, a Lebanese-American who will vote for the first time this year, doesn't see himself in the US without one. 

"It's more than changing policy, it's more than duty in a democracy," he said. "It's about a change in America, a shift in social morale."

Blaik, a Virginia resident, said he doesn't have his eyes set on policy issues only. Blaik wants economic equality. He wants an "America that has a culture of people and not a culture of capitalism," Blaik said, who is studying economics at American University. 

Read more: Can a Biden-Harris ticket fix America's broken Middle East policy?

Historical events during his formative years shaped Blaik's outlook on politics: he grew up Muslim and Arab in a post-9/11 world and came of age during the Great Recession.

Although concerned with Palestinian human rights and Middle East affairs, he said, his civic responsibilities focus on dismantling "a way of life rooted in racism and hyper capitalism" that isn't "sustainable for anyone," he said. For policy to "work for everyone," Blaik added, it needs to be "people-driven, people-focused." 

For Blaik, policies in favour of big business represent older pains. Younger voters tend to agree with him and desire a societal structure around people, not profit. 

Almost 50 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 39 see socialism positively and big business negatively, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll

In the 1980s, Blaik said "Reaganomics didn't allow my father the best circumstances to be financially successful or raise a family," which prompts him to "think of what policy means for the future." But for young Arab Americans, future policies may come with political splintering.

Palestinian human rights have always been a focus for me. That mindset helped me get active later in issues like climate change and gun reform

When it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both Jewish-American and Arab-Americans are voters with diverse needs, said Michael Fischbach, a history professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.

Still, political debates around the conflict did "create a bitterly crippled left" in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. Fischbach described the decades-old conflict as a "cautionary tale" that puts the contemporary "anti-Trump but pro-Israel Democrats in a tight spot with their constituents." 

Arab and Muslim Americans rallying behind Bernie Sanders during the Michigan primary in March is a recent example of that political coalition, given Sanders is both Jewish and held progressive foreign policy stances favourable to a pro-Palestinian bloc.

Disagreeing with the idea that a pro-Palestinian identity affects political engagement, Blaik sarcastically asked "when did the US ever care for Palestine or the Middle East?"

Now that you're listening, Mr Biden, here's what Muslim
Americans would like

Although the window into Arab American political behaviour is often the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's the activism within the debate that fuels political engagement for many young Arab Americans.

Like Blaik, Ahmad Ibsais, 19, will vote for the first time this year, too. Ibsais was born in Palestine and his family moved to Florida when he was seven-years-old. The stance of politicians on his homeland is important to him.

"Palestinian human rights have always been a focus for me," the first year University of Florida student said. "That mindset helped me get active later in issues like climate change and gun reform."

In 2018, Ibsais was in a high school class only two hours away from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students were fatally shot. That mass shooting prompted Ibsais to join the March for Our Lives student-led gun reform movement and organized demonstrations. He also works with Zero Hour, a student-led movement focused on climate change and progressive policy reform.

The majority, 64 percent of people between ages 18 and 29, favour stricter gun reform, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study on gun reform.

Despite his ongoing activism and progressive ideals, Sanders dropping out of the race changed Ibsais' mind on voting altogether. Ibsais tweeted a video of himself saying he won't be voting at all.

"I will not be shamed for not voting between two politicians that will not fight for our future," he wrote in another tweet, referring to Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

I see myself in a broader spectrum; I care about foreign policy, I care about immigration, I care about education. Some things matter more than others but I care about a bigger picture

After Biden spoke with Emgage Action, Ibsais said he respected the gesture, but added "Biden has also done a lot just for political photo-ops. His voting record is not favourable of minorities either."

Stuart Elnagdy, a 24-year-old Washington D.C. resident of Egyptian and Mexican descent, also believes that the contenders for president are problematic.

"To me, they're all different versions of each other," said Elnagdy, a research associate for a democracy development organisation. The Democrat presidential candidates "aren't bringing anything new or meaningful to the table," he said.

Read more: The role of Black Muslims in America's fight
for racial justice

Elnagdy also added whomever receives his vote "needs to reflect the grey areas people live in."

Arab American support for Democrat or Republican parties shifts, like other minority voting blocs, and for decades Arab American voters were either excluded or exploited.

Walter Mondale, who was President Jimmy Carter's vice president, ran for president in 1984. After meeting with community leaders in Chicago, Mondale rejected their contributions saying his campaign doesn't accept donations from Arab Americans. 

Gary Hart, a Colorado senator also running for president that year, ended his relationship with the Arab owned First American Bank to attract Jewish voters ahead of the New York primary.

The cult of personality Alshami warned of leaves people like Dana Ghaddar, 26, a resident of Irvine, California, both confused and hesitant to engage with politics. Initially, Ghaddar aimed to vote for Sanders, saying she believed in his progressive ideals necessary to oust "Trump, the modern-day Nazi leader."

After receiving an endorsement from Sanders, Ghaddar shifted toward Biden but remained unconvinced in the former vice president. For Ghaddar, the only citizen in a family of legal permanent residents, voting is a "public duty," she said, but not one that leaves her trusting of the electoral system.

"Americans get so excited in politics like things are going to change," Ghaddar said. "We know whoever's running just wants power."

Yousef H. Alshammari is a US-based Kuwaiti journalist and writer with a focus on international politics and culture. 

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefWryRonin