Arab-Americans, it's time to flip Ohio blue

Arab-Americans, it's time to flip Ohio blue
Comment: As Arab-Americans, we feel the sting of both Republican and Democrat foreign policy failures personally. But now is no time for voter apathy, writes Laila Ujayli.
5 min read
21 Oct, 2020
Recent polls put Trump very slightly ahead of Biden in Ohio [Getty]
From the United States' racist rhetoric, immigration, and surveillance policies at home, to exploitative and militarised policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab-Americans are no strangers to feeling like our government's actions do not reflect our values.

Consequently, I've heard many fellow Arab-Americans in Ohio succumb to apathy, brushing aside talk of the 2020 election with a flourish of their hands and resignedly sighing, "Democrat? Republican? It will make no difference."

While the presidential election admittedly does little to promise truly transformational change, these disappointments are reasons to engage - not disengage - in order to bring about a vision of US policy that respects the rights and dignity of people both at home and abroad.

Despite representing less than one percent of the American electorate, Arab-Americans have the potential to play an outsized role in the upcoming presidential election. Of the top 10 states with the highest estimated Arab-American population, half are swing states: Michigan, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

While polling Arab-Americans can be difficult due to limited census data and a reluctance to be counted, we know that Arab-Americans tend to be better educated, slightly wealthier, and more politically active than the average American voter. The vast majority are also registered to vote.

Despite representing less than one percent of the American electorate, Arab-Americans have the potential to play an outsized role in the upcoming presidential election

So why, despite comparatively higher levels of education and political engagement, are so many in our community reluctant to cast their ballot?

One explanation is the US census offers no option for people to identify as Middle Eastern or North African, undermining our visibility in population counts and undercutting our political representation by excluding us from redistricting. 

We are also deprived of "language minority group" status under the Voting Rights Act, which means Arab-American voters with limited English proficiency aren't offered bilingual poll workers or voting information services in Arabic. Not only does this complicate voting, but it also makes Arab-Americans feel excluded from the political process.

Beyond logistics, the issues also matter. There's often a tendency to simplify Arab-American voters to the identity preceding the hyphen. But Arab-American voters are also members of our wider American communities.

We worry about the crises on our doorsteps just as we seek to address those thousands of miles away. I know that my Arab-American friends in Ohio and I worry about the coronavirus pandemic. We worry about the opioid crises and economic opportunity. We worry about racial justice and mass incarceration. We worry about the climate crisis and developing green infrastructure - and we want that Columbus hyperloop.

And while the majority of Arab-Americans today identify as Democrat, we are by no means a single voting bloc. Arab-Americans are split along party lines on partisan issues like gun control, healthcare, and budgets - just like the rest of America.

Undeniably, however, Arab-Americans possess a unique relationship to and investment in foreign policy. And the failures of US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa under both Democratic and Republican administrations represent a significant source of frustration.

Arab-Americans understand how inseparably US domestic and foreign policies are intertwined

When former president Barack Obama came to office, he promised a "new beginning" for the United States and the Middle East. But a drone war and humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen, Syria, and Libya later, Obama's "new beginning" played out as more of the same. And despite his claims otherwise, Trump is no better - actually, he's worse. Biden also doesn't promise to be much of an improvement, with his stance on Palestinian rights in particular leaving much to be desired.

Existing at the intersections of domestic and foreign policy, Arab-Americans feel the sting of these foreign policy failures personally. We watch our friends and family in our countries of origin suffer. Travel bans prevent our families overseas from coming to visit us, and sanctions complicate our ability to send money abroad to support them.

Our taxpayer dollars subsidise the bombs splintering our homelands and the weapons sold to the dictators repressing our friends. And here in the United States, Arab-American communities are surveilled and profiled.

For these reasons, I've heard several of my Arab-American friends proclaim they're not voting, refusing to offer a perceived stamp of approval to a political establishment that has failed to serve them and their families for decades.

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But the upcoming presidential election is not all-or-nothing. Rather, the election merely represents another waystation, another opportunity to push change a little further. And for the domestic policies that matter - from listening to the science on both the pandemic and the climate crisis, to refusing to flirt with white supremacists - former president Joe Biden aligns closer with our values. 

Biden will end the Muslim Ban on his first day in office. He will raise refugee caps to end the decimation of the US refugee programme and he won't cage families for seeking safety and better opportunity.

Will Biden enact the radical transformation of US foreign policy we seek? No, probably not. But Arab-Americans understand how inseparably US domestic and foreign policies are intertwined.

Just as poor foreign policy can adversely impact Arab-Americans at home, we can use domestic policy as a lever to positively influence US foreign policy abroad.

Does Biden want to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? He'll have to invest in global public health infrastructure and prioritise diplomatic, rather than adversarial, relationships with other countries. Does Biden want to confront the climate crisis? Well, he'll have to reduce the military's large-scale emissions by decreasing the US' global military footprint. Does he want to fund infrastructure and economic programs to create jobs? He can find a couple billion dollars to finance those programmes by cutting the Pentagon's bloated budget.

Arab-American voters in Ohio and other swing states now stand at the crossroads between engagement or withdrawal. I hope we all choose the former. It's time for us to roll up our sleeves, highlight these intersections, and stay politically engaged even after November 3.

It's time to flip Ohio blue. It's time to flip Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania blue. Mail those ballots, head to the polls, and let's get started. Yalla, go vote!

Laila Ujayli focuses on the human impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East. She is a graduate student of Public Policy at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government and was previously a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War.

Follow her on Twitter @lailaujayli

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.