Most Arab-Americans support Obama
Many feel a kinship with the Democrat, who they say can repair America's reputation abroad.
By Tamara El-Khoury, Times Staff Writer
Published March 10, 2008
Saleh Mubarak is Syrian-American. He's 49, a Tampa engineer, a former longtime Republican.
And he supports Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for president, following a trend in the country's Arab-American community.
"The American image in the outside world has been damaged, and we want someone who will reach out to others and say, 'Let's sit at the table and talk,'" said Mubarak, who emigrated from Syria in 1981. "That's what attracted me to Obama. He said, 'I will sit with Iran, I will sit with anyone.'"
Polls by Zogby International show that Arab-Americans overwhelmingly support Obama. Although Obama is Christian, he lived in predominantly Muslim Indonesia for a few years with his mother and stepfather.
Obama's campaign had to defend against attacks on his patriotism and deflect repeated false reports spread on the Internet that he is Muslim.
"The biography, the empathy factor, they feel Obama understands the community," said James Zogby, a senior analyst for Zogby International and founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization that researches politics and policy in the Arab-American community.
Arab-Americans also remember a line in Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Zogby said.
"If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties," Obama said.
The 3.5-million Arab-Americans are not a uniform community. They are a complex group of immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries in southwest Asia and North Africa who share a common cultural heritage. More than 50 percent are Lebanese. The majority of Arab-Americans are Christian, Zogby said.
They make up about 1percent of the national vote and 11/2 percent to 2 percent of the vote in Florida.
In 2000, George Bush won the Arab-American vote. Today, far fewer say they will vote Republican, a result of the war in Iraq and Bush's support for Israel. Antiterrorism measures like the Patriot Act, which have been criticized at times for unfairly targeting law-abiding Muslims and Arab-Americans, have further eroded support.
Twenty percent of Arab-Americans said they had been discriminated against since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and two-thirds said they were afraid that they or their children would experience discrimination if the current trends continue, Zogby said.
Civil liberties are among Mubarak's main concerns. Arab-Americans, he said, have noticed an erosion of freedoms and less due process since Sept. 11. He said it took a year of humiliation and paperwork to get his name off a list that made it difficult for him to travel.
Samer AlGhafari, 39, an American of Syrian and Indian descent living in Tampa, echoes those feelings. His reflex is to look over his shoulder every time he wants to say something.
"Some of the recent policies made internally seem to have lost quite a bit of what made America America, which is the personal liberties and due process," he said. "Many of the stuff that we see and hear about remind me of the similar things that made me leave Syria."
AlGhafari was a fan of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But he will not support John McCain, who won the Republican nomination, because McCain supports keeping troops in Iraq.
And although AlGhafari said he likes former President Bill Clinton, he won't vote for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton for fear of creating a dynasty of two ruling families.
"It's only a matter of 30 years, and we become a copycat of Syria or Egypt or Libya," he said.
Fares Francis, 50, a Lebanese-American living in Lakeland, supports McCain. He said he thinks the Arizona senator will continue a Bush policy that forced the Syrian government to leave Lebanon after 30 years of occupation.
"I believe that President Bush did a lot for Lebanon," Francis said.
Joe Rached, a Lebanese-American living in Lutz, said if it were not for the Iraq war, there would have been a dozen terrorist attacks in the United States. He said he will vote for whoever becomes the Republican nominee. National security is a top concern for him, and he thinks a Democrat would weaken the Army.
While many Arab-Americans keep a watchful eye on events in the Middle East and North Africa, polls show their other chief concerns are similar to those among the rest of the country: education, health care and the economy.
Husam Amin has stopped looking for a U.S. president who will end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 48-year-old Palestinian-American and Tampa real estate agent said he has seen too many road maps to peace and heard too many promises from politicians that ended in disappointment.
Amin, a registered Republican who is undecided on which candidate he will support, said he is focused on the economy and education.
"I feel my immediate issues are more domestic," he said.
Laurice Hachem, a Lebanese-American living in Tampa, doesn't know whom she'll vote for. She's a registered Republican with enormous respect for McCain but is leaning toward Obama. Hachem, in her mid 50s, said Obama is inspirational and reminds her of former President John F. Kennedy.
Arab-Americans are concerned with America's damaged reputation abroad, polls show. Hachem thinks the next president should talk to Cuba's new leader.
"I like the fact that he is willing to talk with other nations, not just people that we consider our allies," she said. "I believe strongly that you should talk to your enemies."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or firstname.lastname@example.org