In Pennsylvania, a bright new future is emerging, and Arab Americans can lead the way

In Pennsylvania, a bright new future is emerging, and Arab Americans can lead the way
Comment: Pennsylvania is a key battleground state, and our sizeable Arab and Muslim community has a vital role to play in the 2020 election and beyond, writes Al-Sharif Nassef.
6 min read
30 Oct, 2020
'People have awakened to the perils of complacency' writes Nassef[Getty]
Blocks away from the birthplace of modern democracy, where America's founding revolutionaries signed the Declaration of Independence that freed the United States of Britain's colonial rule, stands Philadelphia's Al-Aqsa Center. 

Its colorful arabesque facade shines bright among a sea of brick townhouses and once-industrial workshops turned galleries, lofts, and cafes.

Here, in the city's Old Kensington neighbourhood, hundreds of people line up in masks outside the Al-Aqsa Center to receive humanitarian assistance - 2020's pandemic-induced economic crisis is driving scores of immigrants and Philly locals alike into bread lines, often standing side-by-side.

These days, mutual aid efforts have reached an unprecedented scale: hundreds of boxes stacked high with free fresh produce, milk, and food staples alongside rent support applications, protective personal equipment, and gun buyback programmes are available to help get the community through tough times.

While aid is dished out, tables staffed by energetic young volunteers donning "Yalla Vote" T-Shirts register droves of new voters each week and provide translated materials to help guide those eligible through the electoral process and voting by mail.

Given the state's swingable reality, well-organised multi-demographic alliances in Pennsylvania can deliver the White House - or not

Spanning an entire city block, the Center hosts a full time grade school active in interfaith programming, a mosque, a community development organisation, a clothing store, and a family-run Arabic grocery market serving shawarma and falafel sandwiches nearly as good as those in the Levant. Over the years, this center alone has plugged tens of thousands of Arab immigrants into the political process, and its voting district hosts one of the largest Arab populations in the city - mostly of Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese origin. 

While the Al-Aqsa Center serves a newer generation of Arab immigrants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has been home to waves of Christian and Muslim Arab immigrants alike for the better part of a century. Arab Maronite, Orthodox, and Coptic churches are scattered throughout rural towns across the Commonwealth. Once bustling "rust belt" cities like Scranton, Erie, Bethlehem, Allentown, and Wilkes-Barre drew scores of immigrants, including significant numbers of Christian Arabs, to jobs in American industry from Levantine nations, with some neighbourhoods once rivaling Dearborn, Michigan in visibility of Arabic culture and language.

Back in 2016, the Arab American Institute estimated that over 182,000 Pennsylvanians are ethnically Arab, a number that has been growing ever since. The potential, then, of the Arab vote to decide the electoral outcome in this key swing state must be fully realised. 

Arab Americans have an opportunity to unite, and leverage their collective power to advance key policies of shared principle, human rights at home and abroad, and mutual interest. United, we hold great potential for the community to influence policymakers in Pennsylvania and beyond, especially in other swing states with significant numbers of Arab and Muslim voters, like Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia. That influence is further amplified with the development of regional and national Arab American voting blocs.

Read more: Our Arab American forefathers left us a legacy we can't afford to ignore

In the 2016 presidential election, Pennsylvania was decided by a mere 45,000 votes. Now in 2020, famed statistician Nate Silver's blog explains why Pennsylvania is more likely than any other to be the deciding state in the presidential election on 3 November. A united Arab vote here has the power to tilt the outcome in Pennsylvania and even shape the future of the United States. 

It's not just the Arab American community that wields this power. Rapidly growing numbers of immigrants from many non-Arab Muslim majority countries, in tandem with the bastion of Black Muslim political power in Philadelphia - where Malcolm X helped grow the ranks of city's revert community - a durable Arab-Muslim-Black alliance could be a major force in Pennsylvania politics for decades to come. And given the state's swingable reality, well-organised multi-demographic alliances in Pennsylvania can deliver the White House - or not - and therein lies the potential to directly affect foreign policy while helping set the domestic agenda.

Groundwork for this alliance certainly exists, with decades of pionering Arab American organisations like American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Arab American Institutue. Still, there is a need for more robust organising operations to engage and mobilise the vast Arab base, foster consensus around shared principles and values, and implement 21st century movement-building tactics with data assets. They must organise money, hold capacity to endorse candidates and draw clear red lines on issues like Palestine.

Relationships capable of rooting such a coalition in Pennsylvania exist today at a grass-tops level. However, many well-intentioned civic leaders and organisations risk being co-opted by party elites and a political machinery that often tokenises minorities with public positions to appear inclusive. These alliances effectively yield little real agency or decision making power, instead disempowering minority communities. 

A compelling new narrative ties together faith and rights while transcending sectarian divides

The task of uniting a single community, such as Arabs, is certainly no easy feat - let alone across sectarian, faith, and ethnic lines. Even justice for Palestine, one issue Arabs could agree on for many generations, seems disgracefully no longer a priority for several Arab states. Furthermore, effectively leveraging a united alliance in Pennsylvania and other swing states is a significant challenge in and of itself. 

Nevertheless, as interfaith and cross-class movements emerge to shape the future of politics in Pennsylvania and around the nation, such as the revival of Dr Martin Luther King's legacy with The Poor People's Campaign, a compelling new narrative ties together faith and rights while transcending sectarian divides: A vision of radical equality that understands the linkage between ecological devastation and unfettered corporate power, the connection between poverty, militarism, and America's disastrous support of chronic human rights abusers in the Arab world and beyond. This vision uplifts all marginalised communities and Arab-Americans have certainly been cast to the side for far too long. 

A serious multi-ethnic alliance in Pennsylvania to echo the calls and robust policies proffered by the Poor People's Campaign - one that revolves around values rather than party bosses, one that is as committed to upholding civil rights domestically as it is advancing human rights abroad -- can be critical in shaping our country's and the world's future for the better. With people awakened to the perils of complacency and armchair politics after four years of the Trump presidency and many disappointments during the Obama-Biden administration before that, the same urgency that drove dedicated work against the budding fascist administration must be channeled into strategic work toward policies embodying the values of peace, justice, stewardship, compassion, and equality.

And if Arabs and other marginalised communities with decisive demographics in swing states can carry the torch of the movement forward, perhaps even the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice could weigh on our shoulders, too. 

Al-Sharif is a community organiser, advocate, and analyst with a background in environmental justice, peacebuilding, and international human rights. He works with All Voting Is Local, a project of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to uphold voting rights of minority communities throughout Pennsylvania and protect democracy for all Americans.

Follow him on Twitter: @SansSharif

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