By Ray Hanania
Many ethnic and racial groups have faced discrimination in America before eventually overcoming it. For example, Illinois candidate for Governor Chris Kennedy, the son of assassinated US Senator Robert F. Kennedy, recently reminded Arab Americans that the Irish in America didn’t always have power. For many years they faced discrimination, and signs were posted that read “NINA,” an acronym for “No Irish Need Apply.”
Arab Americans face more subtle discrimination. The people who hate us don’t display “NANA” signs — “No Arabs Need Apply.” It’s built into the system, with Arab Americans excluded from politics and the news media. Our voices are not heard, although we keep fighting to change that.
Like all Arabs in America, I faced discrimination. After I served honorably in the US Military during the Vietnam War, the FBI opened an investigation into my life when I was discharged, asserting that I might be a “terrorist.” The two-year probe concluded I was merely concerned with bettering my community.
Today, 43 years later, many things have changed, but many things are the same.
It wasn’t long ago that elected government officials in America wouldn’t even take our phone calls. Some — like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New York Senator Chuck Schumer — have refused to meet with us.
Worse, when we engaged in the election process and contributed money to their campaigns, we became targets of the bitter election process. Opponents of the candidates we supported pointed to us as “evidence” that the candidate was “bad,” because they had support from “Arabs.” So the candidates we tried to help returned our money, as if our hard-earned income was tainted.
That started to change in the 1990s but, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, candidates shied away from us again. Politicians in America started to distinguish between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims. The majority of Muslims in America are non-Arab and most, including Pakistanis, Indians, Asians and African Muslims, continued to be engaged in American politics, while Arabs were not.
But the sands are shifting again in favor of Arab Americans. The biggest gains have been in Michigan, where Arabs have elected many candidates to public office. That trend is spreading to other areas, like Chicago in Illinois.
This week, the Chicago branch of the Arab American Democratic Club, which has been fighting for the rights of Arab American voters since its foundation in 1983, hosted a political forum. More than 500 Arab Americans attended the event to show their support for political engagement. Even more significant was that nearly every candidate for every office in Illinois — judges, legislators, mayors, county commissioners and trustees — attended asking for Arab American support, money, and the chance to speak publicly in support of Arab American rights.
In fact, rivals for political office attended together, both vying for Arab American voter support. It used to be that, if one attended, the rival would use that as a weapon. Not anymore.
Although the US Census refuses to count Arabs in a continued effort to suppress our growing influence, the Arab American vote is growing. There are other ways to measure our empowerment.
When Americans are canvassed for their vote, their ethnicity is identified. I have the voter roster for Illinois and for the United States. In Illinois, 83,000 voters are identified as “Arab,” while in America as a whole the figure is 1.3 million. The identification process is flawed, though, because many Arab voters don’t “look” Arab or publicly identify as being Arab. Remember, we have been persecuted in America so many change their name from Mohammed to “Mike” or from Fareed to “Fred.”
I argue this unofficial canvass is deficient. I think many Arabs hide their identities to avoid being victimized. It could be as much as 50 percent, which means there might be 166,000 Arab voters in Illinois and 2.6 million in America.
We can extrapolate those numbers to flesh out the real community size. The Census says 22 percent of Americans who can register to vote don’t. That means that if Arabs are “typical” Americans, the 2.6 million Arab voters really equals 3.2 million voters. The Census also notes that 75 million of the nation’s 300 million inhabitants can’t vote because they are under 18. That’s 25 percent, so the real Arab population in America is four million people. Factor in that most Arab families have more children than typical Americans, and that increases the figure even further.
In America, the Irish, Italians, blacks and Hispanics don’t have to do this mathematical gymnastics when assessing their empowerment. But Arab Americans must. That’s why it was so amazing to see dozens of American candidates from all ethnic backgrounds asking for the Arab American vote at the AADC event, which is networked with the Arab American Institute in Washington. Even if the Census won’t count us, American officials are starting to recognize our importance as a voting constituency.
There was one other important aspect of the investigation the FBI conducted on me that I should mention. At the very end, it cautioned other FBI agents not to interview me: “It is believed that an interview of the subject (Hanania) would be unproductive.
Considering his position as editor of The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper, mentioned in the enclosed memo, an interview could lead to difficulties in future interviews with other Arab subjects.”
That’s when I realized that there is one power that is greater than the right to vote. The FBI was afraid of me because I published a small English language newspaper for Arab Americans in the mid-1970s. Clearly, communications and journalism are the real powers in America.