Four years ago, around 26% of Arab Americans in the U.S. said that they were leaning toward voting for Donald Trump for president ahead of the election. Since then, Trump has banned travel to and from numerous countries with majority Muslim populations, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought economic and health hardships to every community—including Arab American ones. But there are still many people in these communities who prefer Trump’s conservative, social, or fiscal approaches to leadership.
It’s important to remember there are diverse opinions within the Arab American community, says Rima Meroueh, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities. It’s also important to note that not all Arab Americans are Muslim, and not all Muslim Michiganders hail from the Middle East. But there are some issues that do uniquely affect many Arab American Michiganders, and they form a voting bloc that’s powerful and large enough to have a major impact on election results in Michigan.
To get a better idea of what priorities Michigan’s Arab American residents are considering as Election Day approaches, Stateside spoke with Meroueh and Ali Harb, a reporter for Middle East Eye.
Issues from the past four years
Meroueh says there are a number of issues that could sway Arab Americans’ votes. They include things like healthcare, education, and support for small business owners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then there’s the travel restrictions on certain countries with Arab or majority Muslim populations, which President Trump implemented after his inauguration. Meroueh says the Arab American community is a community in diaspora, and many Arab Americans haven’t been able to see family—including immediate relatives—in other countries for a long time.
“People feel targeted, that this is a place where I am from, this is my heritage. I may have a new home, but this is my heritage,” she said. “You’re essentially, by banning this, you’re saying everyone there is not good, and so people are concerned with that, and that impacts their children as well."
From Bernie to Biden?
Harb followed Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary campaign in Michigan. He says Sanders’ team worked hard to engage the state’s Arab American community. It seemed to pay off. Many people who were skeptical of politics responded well to Sanders’ message and started getting involved in the political process themselves, according to Harb.
But he’s not sure he’s seeing the same level of engagement when it comes to the Biden campaign.
“From what I'm seeing, the Biden campaign is struggling to generate the buzz and replicate the enthusiasm that Senator Sanders had,” Harb explained “Perhaps part of that is the pandemic, perhaps part of that is maybe struggling to know [how] to speak to Arab American issues and connect to the activists on the ground who are able to speak to the community.”
Progressive and conservative
Meroueh points out that there are both progressive and conservative movements among Arab American communities, and there’s room for both parties to expand their understanding of how to engage with the voting bloc.
And, Harb adds, while many members of the Arab American community did respond favorably to Senator Sanders’ campaign, some of them maintain support for President Trump.
“Support for Trump in the Arab community can be explained by several factors, one of which is party loyalty,” Harb said. “Long before the Republican Party became the party of xenophobia under Donald Trump, it stood for conservative values that many Arab Americans identified with.”
A seat at the table
Meroueh says it’s not enough for politicians to simply offer a gesture to Arab American communities and expect their vote in return.
"Arab Americans are becoming much more politically active and understanding their role in this democracy,” she said. “I think they’re understanding the difference between elected officials coming to do events that on the surface may seem like they’re trying to engage them, and understanding the difference between that and actually having Arab Americans at the table for policy discussions."
Listen to the full conversation above.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.