WORDS BY HIBBAH KALEIH
ILLUSTRATION BY BASIA KURLENDER
Like many others, I remember where I was on November 3, 2016 (don’t worry - this is not another article about 2016 election predictions). I was living inside the Old City walls of Jerusalem, eight hours ahead of DC time, and I went to sleep without a second thought about the election, confident of the outcome. When I woke up the next morning, votes were still being counted, but the results were clear. As I walked through the Christian Quarter that day, I passed by an acquaintance and we got to talking about the election. He commented that he was glad Trump won the presidency because of his commitment to protecting Christians in the Middle East. I looked at him dumbfounded. “Why does that matter whether he’s Christian? Obama was also Christian” “It matters because it will keep my family alive and safe.’” This and many other interactions I had regarding the election, both similar and in direct contrast to the opinions my Jerusalem friend gave, deeply impacted my understanding of the concerns and priorities Arabs have when making political decisions.
In the United States, Arabs are treated as one homogenous ethnicity, yet there are a number of ways in which Arabs divide and define themselves in the Middle East. Gulf vs. Levant. Christian vs. Muslim, and then a step further to Sunni vs. Shia. Orthodox vs. Catholic vs. Baptist. Immigrant vs. ethnic Arab. Classifying a diverse group of people from over 15 countries into one voter bloc overlooks the essential issues that the diaspora prioritizes. Their priorities, like other Americans, range from education to the economy to foreign policy to healthcare. I outline below the priorities that I have found come up the most often when discussing politics with other Arabs in the United States. It is important to note that this is based on my experience as a first-generation Palestinian/Jordanian Christian, and therefore does not encompass everyone’s perpsective, especially those from different countries and religious backgrounds.
Identity politics take on a new level of meaning in the Middle East and are integral to voting choices. Most people from the Middle East feel strongly tied to their ethnic roots, their religion, and their family name. Arabs are concerned with the protection of their families back home, as well as their freedom of religion and speech - rights often taken for granted in the United States. To be frank, in 2016, while most Arabs voted for Clinton, a portion of Arab voters were motivated by fear of what could happen to their families if Clinton were elected - someone with historic ties to interventionist foreign policies. As anti-Muslim rhetoric increased over the past four years, this turned off many voters who traditionally voted more conservatively, both Arab and otherwise. This trend also laid claim to the fact that, while Arabs are traditionally more socially conservative, the rhetoric against Muslims (who are not all Arab) and the handling of foreign policy issues has trumped social concerns.
Although Arabs pay close attention to major issues such as ecnomics, healthcare, and education, US foreign policy decisions are arguably at the forefront of every Arab-American’s voting considerations. The US foreign policy decisions about the Middle East are not conceptual chess moves - the effects on the region are seen immediately, and the impact of some decisions is seen for decades. Take Israel-Palestine for instance. While a side issue for most non-Arab Americans, the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza remains a crucial voting consideration for many Arabs. This is why Bernie Sanders had an immense following among Arab voters - he is arguably the first major presidential candidate in history to talk about Palestine, and he was the most openly critical of Israel without immediately being dismissed as anti-semitic. He also added compassion and nuance to the Middle East foreign policy conversation, which is sometimes more than can be said for other candidates.
And if you are war weary from all the conflicts in the Middle East, imagine being from there. Every time I hear of another bombing or skirmish in the region, my heart hurts for another place, another city, another piece of history my parents grew up visiting that I will never be able to see. In 2001, the Bush Administration declared a War on Terror without a fundamental understanding of Arab civil society and governance. The Obama Administration drew and redrew red lines in Syria, talked a big game when Russia took a fundamental role in the Syrian conflict, and then sat back and did nothing. The Trump Administration campaigned on a promise of “no more wars,” a promise that earned him many votes, Arab and otherwise. His administration was also responsible for some of the largest arms sales to Saudi Arabia, bypassing US congressional approval and directly contributing to the escalation of the conflict in Yemen - the worst international humanitarian disaster. A bomb was launched into Syria within one month of the new Biden administration. And the cycle continues. Historical grievances have led to the Arab diaspora becoming increasingly disenchanted with each incoming president and skeptical of any promised change, regardless of political party. Meanwhile, many administrations do not seem to always account for how integral foreign policy is to how Arabs vote. When the missile was launched into Syria on February 25h, Arab twitter was rife with grim jokes, with the underlying question being - how much does US foreign policy really change with each administration?
While many Arabs do consider social issues when voting, it is not at the forefront of their considerations. In fact, as the left is arguably leaning more left, there has been an uncomfortable reckoning because Middle Eastern culture is inherently more conservative, and many issues that are at the forefront of American debate are simply a nonissue for Arabs. When discussing the Democratic vs. Republican party with Arab family and friends, social issues rarely come up, if ever. When they do, whether it be abortion laws or marriage equality, they are never the reasoning behind supporting one candidate over another. It is more of an afterthought to bolster whichever candidate someone has already decided to support. I would argue that the role of the government, as perceived by many ethnic Arabs, is safety and economic security, not so much dictating social norms. However, when considering both social and other issues, there is a discrepancy between younger and older Arab voters. Therein lies my last point.
A NOTE ON AGE…
When I discuss many of these voting considerations with my parents, I find that we make similar points but come to different conclusions. Age colors all the issues mentioned above. The older generation of Arabs has lived through the collapse of many regimes. Many have immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of security and safety for their families. Those from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon have seen their countries destroyed beyond recognition. After all that has happened in their lifetime, I have found that many of them take a realist approach and are concerned with the security of their people and country above all else. My generation, the younger generation, seems to take a more idealist approach when considering political issues. We have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more secular society, and aftereffects of both the Arab Spring and “War on Terror” have also colored voting priorities. For better or for worse, many younger Arab-American voters are more confident demanding change that perhaps those like my Palestinian father simply do not see as a priority.
The reality of the political climate in the United States is that foreign policy decisions that are made here hit too close to home - quite literally - for Arabs. I sometimes laugh when I hear of national security experts predicting a foreign policy shift away from the Middle East or when people complain that the United States is too intertwined with conflicts in the region. The U.S. is in too deep - whether by choosing which factions to fund in regional wars, championing human rights while funding billions in Saudi and Israeli weapons, or propping up and tearing down regimes. As an Arab diaspora, we are left to make our voices heard through our vote while we observe the policy decisions that the United States makes and the outsized effect they have on our home countries each and every day,