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Journalist Misses the Point on Arab Americans

posted on: Aug 5, 2016

Image source: Scoop Empire

BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer

On August 3, Nancy Kaffer published an article entitled “How the GOP Lost Arab-American Voters” in Politico Magazine. The article examines the history of Arab Americans as a voting bloc, who were once a “sought-after” demographic by Republicans, but not anymore.

Kaffer argued that since Arab Americans are largely entrepreneurial and socially conservative, it makes sense for them to vote Republican. In 2000, around 72% of Arab Americans voted for George Bush because he sat down with community leaders and campaigned for their vote, unlike any candidate running this year.

Kaffer’s research found that by 2004 when the Iraq War was in full swing, 85% of Arab Americans voted for Democrat John Kerry. This democratic upswing continued through 2008 when 90% of Arab Americans voted for Barack Obama. Kaffer predicts this democratic upswing will increase even more in November because of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and fear of Syrian refugees.

Despite this push in the left direction, Democrats have a history of rejecting Arab American endorsements and donations, such as Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Kaffer conveniently forgot to mention that Hillary Clinton also rejected Arab American endorsements and donations during her 2000 Senate race. While these Democrats were rejecting Arab Americans for reasons none other than pure prejudice, the GOP was recruiting their votes.

But after 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, Arab Americans became the targets of hate crimes and civil rights abuses. President Bush maintained that Arab Americans were allies in the War on Terror, but too many non-Arab Americans mistakenly thought otherwise. In the last 12 years or so, issues of mass surveillance, racial profiling, increased support for Israel, treatment of Syrian refugees, declared wars, and undeclared wars in Arab countries have forced Arab Americans to vote based on racial issues.

Gone are the days where Arab Americans voted based on bread and butter politics only.

Although Kaffer’s article offered intrigue into the Arab American voting bloc, it was a very narrow understanding of the community.

Kaffer’s article focused mostly on Arab American Muslims of Dearborn, Michigan – a tiny percentage of the entire community. Most surprisingly about the article is that Kaffer does not mention Christians once, despite the fact that they make up 65% of the Arab American population.

Kaffer also uses the terms “Arab-American” and “Muslim” interchangeably in her discussion of Donald Trump’s potential to earn the Arab American vote. Indeed, Donald Trump’s Islamophobia upsets Arab American Christians, too, but in the way that it upsets all people who have logic and a heart, regardless of religion or ethnicity. However, the article frames potential Muslim support for Trump from the Arab American perspective, which is confusing and wrong.

For example, the article includes a statement by Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005-2009. Anuzis speaks directly about Muslims, and how Trump can appeal to them through his platform of eliminating “radical Islam.” Kaffer responds to this saying, “whether Trump can, or will, make a pitch to Arab-American voters is largely moot.”

Kaffer failed to make the distinction between the American Muslim community, of which only 25% is Arab, and Arab Americans in general.

In the same quote, Azunis said: “I believe most of the Muslims here are patriotic Americans who have accepted our culture and Western civilization, and are tolerant of others.”

Did Kaffer see nothing wrong with this statement? The Arab world is responsible for paving the path for Western science, medicine, literature, and more. Regardless, though, it is not the responsibility of any Muslim or Arab American to “accept” Western culture.

Comments like Azunis’ – and complacency with them from writers like Kaffer – perpetuate these harmful generalizations about Arab Americans.

Furthermore, focusing only on Dearborn when thinking about Arab Americans is narrow-minded. Perhaps in the 1980s, Dearborn was the city to symbolize Arab American society, but not anymore. If there are around 400,000 Arab Americans in Michigan, only about 32,000 of them live in Dearborn. A broader representation of Arab Americans in Michigan means looking at Sterling Heights, Warren, West Bloomfield, Dearborn Heights, Inkster, Livonia, Troy, Lansing, Flint, and Grand Rapids.

Constantly using Dearborn as the definition of all Arab American communities is a lazy way to get to know the community. Journalists, despite the fact that there are far more Arab Americans in California and New York who also live in tightknit communities, constantly put Dearborn under a microscope. In the article, Kaffer displayed photos of Dearborn’s Arab American residents being charitable, playing football, and celebrating. These normal situations are not news, and making them appear so is patronizing.

Dearborn Collage from original article on Politico | AP; Getty Images

Examining “life in Dearborn” like it’s a social experiment belittles the community and indirectly tests the residents on their American-ness, which they don’t need to prove to anyone.

The author also makes the mistake of putting a hyphen in the term “Arab American”. The hyphen signifies that the American identity only exists in relation to the Arab identity. Again, this is a way of making Arab Americans seem somehow less American than others because they have not fully dropped one identity for another.

When writing about Arab Americans, there needs to be thorough research and inclusivity. One quick google search of the term “Arab American” would have shown Kaffer that the majority of the community does not use the outdated hyphen. Vast interest in the Arab American Muslim community wrongfully lumps Christians in there, too, and assumes that every Arab American shares the same faith, nationality, and experiences.

It doesn’t matter to people who hate Arabs that the community is diverse, but it should matter to journalists. The media needs to be held to a higher standard of reporting and recognize belligerent statements when they’re made. Otherwise, they become acceptable for people like Donald Trump to use against the community.

One last note: if anyone chooses to show a picture with Arabic writing in an article, double check that the spelling is correct with an Arabic speaker. The Arabic word for “yalla” (يلا) on the t-shirt at the top of the article is wrong and delegitimizes the article that much more.

Yalla Vote photo from original article on Politico | Getty Images


Nisreen Eadeh is a first generation Palestinian American and raised Greek-Antiochian Orthodox Christian in Dearborn Heights and Livonia, Michigan.