By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
A leading Arab American activist in Washington criticized Muslim American groups for saying things that hurt their cause in the United States and dividing the community.
Jim Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, criticized the Muslim political action groups for endorsing George Bush for president, arguing that the community should not vote as a bloc.
In an interview with Albawaba.com, Zogby criticized the Muslim groups who demonstrated in Washington last week accusing them of dividing the community on the basis of religion.
Zogby was elected Chair of the Ethnic Council in the Democratic Party, which includes European ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian, Polish, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs and all Central and Eastern European countries. He also sits on the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party. He offers advice to Al Gore on Middle Eastern issues including Jerusalem and the peace process.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Q- Some analysts say the Arab American vote is going to tip the balance in favor of one of the candidates. Do you see it that way?
A- That has been the way we try to project it, but that is not completely true. To be honest with you, we are nationally one percent of the vote, and in some states we are 3-4 percent of the vote, which can be very important. And that is one of the reasons we are getting the attention that we are getting. Frankly, my advice to the community in Michigan was: don’t endorse one candidate or the other, because that will end the competition.
Q-Who is going to win this election?
A- This election is the closest election that I can recall in history. This is now a one-point race. There is one point in the polls separating the two candidates. In order to win elections, you don’t win national votes, but you have to win individual state votes. But if you look at the Electoral College count right now, the vote is about 230 for each one. You need to have 270 to win. So the states that are still in play are very few and it happens that they are states where Arab Americans live.
Michigan and Florida are hot. They are the biggest ones, and frankly speaking, the candidates are coming to us. We met with Gore three times this election. We met with Bush twice this election. We met with Liebereman, with Mrs. Gore and they are busy courting us, which never happened before. And that’s the good side.
Q- How is the involvement of the Arab American community in this election campaign?
A- We brought our issues to the campaign. When Bush mentioned during the second presidential debate “secret evidence” and “profiling,” two issues of our concerns that was a victory for us, because we never had that happen before. And Gore came out later and made dramatic statements about those issues. Now we have two presidential candidates speaking about two of the most domestic issues affecting us. We met with Gore last week in Michigan and he is the only candidate committed to supporting legislation that will overturn secret evidence. He spoke about airport profiling very strongly, and on the Jerusalem embassy issue, and the need for a balanced approach to the peace process. And Bush has said the same kind of things.
Q- What kind of problems are facing Arab Americans in this election?
A- In Michigan we are being courted by candidates, but in New York they are avoiding us. Hillary Clinton gave money back to a Muslim group because her Republican opponent began attacking her for taking money from them. That is a problem, and it still exists. New York is like a separate country, and is a separate problem that we have to deal with. Even in the Bush and the Gore campaign, we have to fight everyday. There is somebody on the staff level who says “you don’t want their support; maybe this is controversial; maybe it will cost us Jewish support.” And we have to get on the phone and start fighting and arguing with them. We made real progress, but we also have real problems. As long as this rivalry with the Jewish organizations exist, they will fight to keep us out, and we will fight to get ourselves in.
Q- What do you think of Hillary Clinton returning donations to American Muslim groups?
A- Jesse Jackson taught me a lesson a long time ago, and that was: “when you are on center stage, you have to learn how to behave on center stage.” And some folks in our community have not learned how to behave on center stage. So they have done and said dumb things. When the eyes of the world are on you, you have to be careful what you say. I condemned Hillary Clinton for giving the money back. Worse than that, I condemned Rick Lazio, her Republican opponent for making this an issue and condemning Muslims. But also I have to speak out against people in our own community, some of these Muslim groups, who have said dumb things and continue to say dumb things.
Q- To Whom you are you referring to and what kind of things have they said?
A- The guy who is being attacked right now and the money was given back to him because they said he was a supporter of Hamas. He goes to the demonstration in front of the White House on Sunday and says to everybody: “I am being attacked because I am a supporter of Hamas. Who of you here is a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah? And the people cheer for him. Do you see that Mr. Clinton, we are all Hamas.” You don’t do this. We should fight one fight at a time. The fight of getting into politics is one fight, the fight of getting respected is another fight, and this fight is between now and November 7. The fight during the election is the fight of explaining the Middle East issue. You can’t do them both together.
Q- Why do such stories hurt the community?
A-The community is being attacked and they are looking down lists to give money back. I always learned one thing and the Jews taught us this well. When you are the victim, play the victim; it is good to be the victim, because then people sympathize with you. When you go and turn the table around, you lose. So this story which should have ended with them doing a stupid thing to us, now plays back for a second day and a third day with “oh, now we know why he gave the money back, because look at what he says.”
Q- Can you name the person you are referring to here?
A- His name is Abdul Rahman Al-Amoudi of the American Muslim Council. I love the guy, he is a wonderful guy, but we don’t do this stuff. He gave money to our political action committee that we give to candidates; I have been doing nothing all morning except answering the phone. Other candidates who received money from him are now being called by reporters saying are you going to keep his money or not? They have been calling my office saying: should I keep his money or not? There is no reason to do this.
Q- Which presidential candidate will be supported by the Arab American community?
A- No question our community is going to support both candidates. We have done polling, we have Democrats and we have Republicans. I was born a Democrat. My mother put Democratic diapers on me. If you threaten my life, I couldn’t support a Republican. And the reason is quite simple. There is a great debate over the issues of the country and it matters. It is a serious debate over what is the direction we pursue as a country in taking care of our own people. I believe the government can play a role; I support the civil rights movement, I support the efforts to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. I am an advocate for education programs, social services, and the welfare training programs the Democrats have always supported.
Q- How many Arab Americans are Democrats?
A- More than one third are Democrats. Another third are Republicans. They feel very strongly the government should not be involved. The other third are independent and can go either way. The Arab American Republicans support Bush. And Arab American Democrats are endorsing Gore. A lot of Arab Americans are supporting Ralph Nader.
Q-What do you think of the Muslim groups who endorsed Bush as a bloc vote?
A- This is a mistake, because it is based on the assumption that our community should vote as a bloc, all vote one way. Basically this is un-American, because in some other countries all people vote one way. We are Democrats, we are Republicans, and we are independents. And we are going to fight for every vote. Our Institute is bi-partisan; the Chairman of our Board is a Republican, and I am a Democrat, we are best friends, and we work real hard together, and on November 8 we figure out where we go, depending on who wins.
Q- When Muslim groups say they are going to vote as a bloc, how is this going to affect the elections?
A- They can’t vote as a bloc. You can’t pretend something that is not real. Let me tell you the story of Muslim Americans. There are five million American Muslims, 40 percent of them are African Americans. From the Muslim groups that endorsed Bush last week, African American Muslims objected and did not show up. They were against Bush’s endorsement because they are Democrats. Another 10 percent are Bosnians and Albanians who endorsed Al Gore, why? Because Al Gore supports Kosovo, and NATO involvement against Serbia. So 50 percent of the Muslim community, even before you start to think, are on the Gore side.
Q- Who are the other 50 percent?
A- They are Arabs and Pakistanis, and Indians and may be some others. I don’t think all of them are supporting Bush. A poll done of Muslim voters about a month ago showed that 55 percent supported Gore, 23 percent supported Bush. That includes the African American voters, the rest were undecided. So you can’t pretend that there is bloc when there isn’t.
Q- What are the percentages for Arab Americans?
A- When we polled Arab American voters, 30 percent for Bush, 30 percent Gore, 15 percent Ralph Nader; and 15 percent undecided.
Q- How many of the Arab American community are Christians?
A- About 80 percent are Christian. We estimate that 55-60 percent of the overall Arab American community is Lebanese. About 10-15 percent is Syrian.
Q- How does religious sensitivities affect relationships in the community?
A- You are walking me into a dangerous area for me. But I am going into it. We went through this crap in Lebanon, and it affected us here. And we were committed during the whole war. Some people would say: “we are Christians, we are not Arabs,” and I would fight with them. I fight with my own people. We are Arabs and we have to function as a secular community. Now all of a sudden, there are some groups who want to turn this around and say: “ we are not Arabs, we are Muslims.” The groups who demonstrated in Washington last week did it as a Muslim march. But they were all Arab Muslim groups, and they are making confusion. They are separating our community, and I oppose that separation. I support their rights and working with them, but I do not support dividing our community on the basis of religion.
Q- Where do the candidates stand on Middle Eastern issues and is that going to influence how Arab Americans vote?
A- Bush gave money back to a Muslim American donor. He also supports the US embassy to Jerusalem. Gore does not. Gore said the reason we fought Iraq was to make Israel more secure. These are not two perfect candidates. Bush has said more dumb things than Gore. People in our community did not hear his strong support for Israel. They tuned out Al gore and tuned in George Bush.
Q- What role does Joe Lieberman play in the Gore Campaign?
A- He has supported our community on many issues in Congress. He sponsored the legislation on Jerusalem, bad thing. I have my grievances with Lieberman, but his record is better than Bush’s record.
Q- Where does Ralph Nader fit into all of this?
A- Ralph Nader is not going to win. I do not believe it is to the advantage of a weak and vulnerable community. If George Bush wins, or if Al Gore wins, we have people in our community who would say to them we were with you and we need your help. If Ralph Nader loses, we can’t go to anybody. Nader campaign is a joy ride, it might make people feel good, but it does not do you any good. Nader is going to hurt Gore.
Q-Why exactly are you opposed to Ralph Nader?
A- I support Ralph Nader. He is a legend in our country, but I don’t think he is doing a smart thing right now. This is going to make him shrink. He says he wants to run to become the third force in American politics. He is already a force in American politics. His organization helped pass referenda in California on environmental and consumer issues. They have literally revolutionized how California does politics and business. He is now struggling to get 5 percent of the vote; this makes him smaller. By running as a spoiler that is going to hurt Democrats, he has made enemy of the Democratic party that is one half of American politics. It will reduce his effectiveness. He should be inside the Democratic Party, so he could change the Party -- Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)