Looking slightly restless, a small group of young women stood in the shade of a white-stone Bay Ridge mosque with large arched windows. They were fidgeting with their pens or flipping through the forms in their clipboards as they waited for the end of the Friday noon prayer, a weekly occasion that brings together a mass of Arab and Muslim immigrants in this Brooklyn neighborhood.
In a matter of brisk minutes, men flocked out of the mosque exchanging niceties or rushing to meet their families for lunch. Outside the mosque, the women, most of whom wore colorful headscarves and fashionable accessories, pulled themselves together and swiftly intercepted them with a question: “Excuse me, are you a registered voter?”
They raised their voices to overcome the chaos of the moment but they were mostly met with dismissive looks and uninterested nods. Some men, however, seemingly driven by respect or curiosity stopped to talk to them.
With carefully crafted arguments and enthusiastic tones, the young women then start arguing with these older men about the importance for the Arab and Muslim community to emerge from political lethargy at a time of sharp disagreements over U.S. foreign policy towards Iraq, Palestine, Libya and other Arab countries.
“I tell people, ‘politicians want our votes. If we’re not voters they will not care for us.’ We need to be a Muslim vote, a swing vote, to be able to start changing things,” said Aber Kawas, 21, a Palestinian-American political activist studying International Studies at the City University of New York and leading the group of volunteer canvassers.
Kawas and her team are part of a national campaign, called ‘Yalla Vote’ or Let’s Vote, aimed at mobilizing Arab and Muslim Americans to take part in the upcoming local and national elections. Started in 1998 by the Arab American Institute, a non-profit think tank, the campaign has been pushing for an immigrant community that is traditionally wary of participating in political life to lobby political representatives, organize town hall meetings and vote.
In New York, the initiative sends out about twenty volunteers, mostly university students in their early twenties, to the streets, fairs, rallies, schools and mosques to take people’s contact information so they could receive voting cards and cast their ballots in this fall’s presidential and local elections. The project is designed and implemented by the Arab American Association of New York.
Kawas is part of a growing new generation of activists using blogs, social media, public debates and awareness campaigns to put issues of concern to their community on the table and undermine widespread prejudiced misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.
They are standing up for what they perceive as civil rights abuses and aligning with other activists from Latino and African American minority groups fighting against what they consider as biased policing practices. In the past year, following reports about pervasive surveillance by New York police of schools, restaurants, mosques and other places frequented by Arabs and Muslim, hundreds participated in unprecedented rallies in Manhattan against racial profiling and police surveillance.
At least 1.9 million U.S. citizens are of Arab descent according to recent official figures. The Arab American community is diverse with a Christian majority originating from early waves of immigration in the beginning of the 20th century and a minority that arrived in more recent decades. Historians say that restrictions on immigration between the 1920s and 1960s led to a discontinuity in the flow of Arab immigrants resulted from. This translates into divergence in political views and varying degrees of integration among Arab Americans.
Kawas represents a group of first generation Arab Americans who were born and raised in the United States from Arab immigrant parents who came from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan and other Arab countries. Unlike their parents who were struggling to find jobs and integrate, these youths are more outspoken and more aware about their rights as citizens. Growing up in the aftermath of 9/11, they’ve become rebellious against the discrimination facing their communities.
As children and teenagers, some say they had been bullied in schools and in public because of their faith. Despite feeling stigmatized, many young female activists, like Kawas, decided to cover their heads in the Muslim traditional way to show their pride in their background.
Marginalization is not the only factor leading Arab Americans to become activists. Kawas said she had seen her father jailed and deported five years ago because he was an illegal immigrant. Since then, he lives in Jordan while the rest of his family, Kawas, her mother and her three siblings, reside in Brooklyn.
“It’s very hard. He’s getting older and he can’t see his children grow, he doesn’t know what we’re doing on a daily basis,” she said adding that she hasn’t seen her father for two years.
Widespread problems with immigration services for Arabs in the United States was one of the factors that pushed Kawas to volunteer last year in civil rights campaigns against police surveillance and help immigrants receive legal advice.
Facing media bias
Kawas was also angered by the way mainstream U.S. media misrepresented Arab and Muslim culture and politics. As in many Arab households, she grew up watching Arab satellite TV channels that presented starkly different views on the Arab world from U.S. news channels. She heard her parents talk incessantly about politics in the Middle East and how unjust U.S. foreign policies were towards Palestinians and Muslims.
But while the older generation mostly continues to discuss politics in private conversations, Kawas and many of her peers believe there is room for influencing U.S. foreign policies.
“Arab American youths believe that we cannot simply talk about political power but we need to do something about it. They are doing the tangible work, they’re more strategic, more pragmatic,” said Linda Sarsour, a prominent Arab American activist who heads the Arab American Association in New York, the organization overseeing the voter registration program.
Despite a wide sentiment of disenfranchisement among Arab and Muslim Americans, many activists argue that the community is starting to overcome fears of stigmatization in a post September 11 environment.
“The Arab American community is a nascent community that is coming of age politically,” said Omar Tewfik, spokesperson for the Arab American Institute, the Washington-based think-tank. “More and more youths are involved in politics, especially students,” he added.
Although many activists say that, as a minority, their voices might not have a direct effect on the presidential election, they stress that they were able to create change on the local level. In New Jersey, Arab Americans were able recently to have one of their own elected as a mayor of Prospect Park and to influence the voting of congressional representatives.
In some parts of Brooklyn where they are sizable minorities, Arab Americans believe they can swing the votes in state congressional elections by forging alliances and lobbying candidates to endorse their demands. One upcoming initiative by the Arab American Association of New York is to organize a public meeting for the Arab American community to converse with state assembly, congress and state senate candidates.
Lately, activists from 23 Arab and Muslim organizations across the nation have come up with a political platform expressing the demands of their communities like more lenient immigration laws, broader social and educational policies and respect for religious and civil liberties.
According to the most recent poll released this month by the Arab American Institute, the economy is far and away the most important issue for 8 in 10 Arab Americans, followed by foreign policy and health care.
Although most Arab Americans still identify as democrats and would vote for Obama, a growing number of them identify as independent, the poll said.
Many say that they are generally disappointed with both Democrats and Republicans because of a lack of outreach to their communities from both parties.
They say the challenges remain numerous from rampant Islamophobia and national security concerns to potent anti-Muslim groups systematically trying to hamper efforts by Arab Americans to advance their agenda. One activist, for instance, said she was ostracized by public officials for trying to advance the teaching of Arabic culture and language in public schools.
In recent days, a revived anti-Arab ad campaign in New York referred to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a struggle between “civilized” and the “savage,” implying that Arabs were savage. The eruption of violent protests in the Arab and Muslim world against an anti-Muslim film in recent weeks made in the U.S. was a renewed occasion for some U.S. politicians and media outlets to fuel the anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S..
But the challenge for Arab American activists lies also within their communities. At the Bay Ridge office of the Arab American association, after an afternoon of canvassing, Kawas talks with young volunteers about the history of Arab vote and political engagement in the United States.
During the discussion, volunteers shared their frustration about apathetic community members. Some lament the fact that Muslim clerics are not educating the community about the importance of voting. Others say that many Arab Americans in the neighborhood are not citizens yet, don’t speak English, are suspicious or simply don’t care about politics.
So far Kawas and her group have registered almost 800 people to vote, which falls a little short of their target of 1,000 new voters. Despite that, they remain hopeful as they continue to hear many voices of encouragement in the community. Many say they are inspired by the recent pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world.
“I say to people, ‘Arabs in the Middle East are literally dying to earn the right to vote. You have that privilege here, why don’t you use it’,” said Omar Al-Khalili, 22, an activist who studies political science.