Arab-Americans go for Kerry
Laila Saada in New York
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A resident of St Paul, Minnesota, expresses her sentiments about Tuesday's US presidential elections
Four years ago, Karim Baghdadi would have voted for George W Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. On Saturday night, after Iftar with a group of Egyptians and Arab-Americans, when Baghdadi was asked which candidate he would vote for he said: "Of course I'll vote for Bush!" The incredulity of his statement fell on shocked faces and triggered a death-like silence. Then he broke into a smile and said: "Of course not, I was just teasing."
Ramadan in the United States witnessed an upsurge of debates among Arab- Americans. The card and backgammon games that traditionally follow Iftar and Sohour meals have been replaced by heated conversations focussing on the 2004 presidential elections. According to major headlines in the news recently, there was a clear inclination among Arab-American voters to vote for John Kerry.
Baghdadi believes that civil liberties are a major concern for Arab-American voters. Racial profiling, mass round-ups and hours of detention and questioning at airports have left Arab-Americans weary of a renewed era of humiliation and fear, presided over by Bush's Attorney General John Ashcroft. For many Arab- Americans, especially among recent immigrants, Republican ideology that stresses family values and stands against issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, have always been more appealing. However, the Bush administration's ardent intent to ostracise this community pushed some of its voters towards a more Democratic stance.
"I actually believe in Bush's core value system. He's a religious person who acts according to his beliefs," said Baghdadi, 29, the first Arab to work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. "However, it's the way he implements those beliefs and the administration that surrounds him that I'm worried about."
Baghdadi's concerns are echoed across the US. According to the Arab-American Institute (AAI), using figures based on the 2000 presidential election, there is an estimated 105 million voting Americans. Around 1.7 to 2 million of them were Arab-Americans with concentrations in some key states such as Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the AAI estimated a voter turnout of about 510,000 Arab-Americans in the Bush/ John Kerry election. In its recent series of polls among Arab-Americans in these four states, the AAI pointed to the drift of Arab-Americans away from Bush. The number of his supporters fell from 45 per cent of Arab-Americans in 2000 to 31.5 per cent last September. The polls also indicate that up until September, Kerry beat President Bush in all areas of interest to Arab-Americans except for national security and the fight against terrorism. Even here, President Bush's approval rating was a mere 41 per cent positive.
While some Arab-Americans feel that the shift in attitudes away from President Bush is a reflection of a larger shift away from the republican stance, the majority agree that supporting Kerry does not mirror any conviction that the latter would do a better job, especially where foreign policy is concerned. It is a simple statement against the current president.
"I'd vote anything but Bush," said Essam Badawi, 65, a retired venture capitalist and a former hard-core republican from California. "I left the party because I feel it got hijacked by the Christian right. Even though I was an avid Bush supporter in 2000, this year I will definitely vote for Kerry. Not because I believe in him, but because I'm voting against Bush."
Badawi, a Republican since 1972, had voted Republican in every election since. In 1988, he ran for the Republican Central Committee of his home county, Santa Cruz, California and was elected chairman for two years.
"I was a republican because I believed that the Republican Party could better defend individual freedoms and liberties, would make the US a more respected leader of the free world, stood for fiscal restraint and responsibility and would be a better steward of the national coffers," he wrote in an unpublished op-ed. "Four years after the election of George W Bush, we are on the verge of destroying what it has taken us 228 years to build."
Badawi refers to ethnic profiling targeting Muslims and Arab-Americans, the war in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. All three issues, in addition to economic stability, top the Arab-American list of concerns. Neither of the candidates tried to reach out to the Arab-American constituency in their campaigns, with the exception of a few released statements to commemorate the beginning of Ramadan. Yet many Arab-Americans have warmed up to Kerry's blatant attacks against the Bush administration's adoption of the Patriot Act which has allowed the government to institute practices that violate civil liberties.
Though if Kerry has made any open promises towards putting an end to ethnic discrimination, he cloaks his views on the latter two issues in ambiguity.
"It is not possible for Kerry to change the course of affairs in Iraq," said Badawi. "We're in there already and we have a moral obligation to stay until we set things right in the country which we destroyed. And that is the dilemma Kerry will have to face."
Yet, when interviewed before the election, there seemed to be a general consensus that if Kerry were to win there would be a perceptible change both domestically as well as in issues relating to foreign policy towards the Middle East.
"If there will be a difference, it will be a difference in style," said Badawi. "Kerry will better use diplomacy to better position our country on the world map again."