Dearborn: Arab Americans gear up to vote, defying Trump

Against backdrop of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, largest Arab community in US heads to polls with fervour.

Ibrahim Kazerooni leads a congregation of Shia Muslims at the largest mosque in the US [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

Dearborn, United States – As Election Day draws closer, Arab Americans are heading to the polls with the rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign ringing in their ears.

Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni hopes that after many months of listening, his community will take its turn to speak out on November 8.

“There’s a realisation in this election that we have to be serious,” Kazerooni says. “We cannot afford to be apathetic.”

Kazerooni is an imam at the Islamic Center of America. He leads a congregation of Shia Muslims at the largest mosque in the United States, which is located in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.

Home to the largest concentration of Arabs in the country and comprising more than 30 percent of Dearborn’s population (PDF), the community here has been especially rattled by this year’s presidential campaign. Many residents are originally from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq.

Arab community leaders and activists have noted a startling increase in threats and hate speech as the election nears. 

Last-minute efforts by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump in Michigan have signalled its importance as a swing state. With an estimated 500,000 Arabs living in the state, according to data compiled by the Arab American Institute, their vote could play a vital role (PDF).

Alienated by campaign rhetoric

Rachid Elabed, community engagement manager at the Arab-American nonprofit group ACCESS, says he and his team have devoted the past few months to convincing the community that their vote is important, and the results have been promising.

“Everybody wants to vote,” Elabed says.

Many voters here feel misunderstood and alienated by the campaign rhetoric targeting the Arab and immigrant communities – such as Trump’s call to build a wall and turn away refugees from the Middle East, and Clinton’s insistence that Muslims be “eyes and ears” to keep the country secure.

But it has also helped galvanise Arab voters.

“Islamophobia is motivating Arabs by putting pressure on the community to get out and vote,” Elabed says. “It’s important to send a message that our community can unite and overcome this.”

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Asha Noor, who also works with ACCESS, agrees that the rhetoric has motivated Arabs, but also has emboldened those with intolerant views and sparked fear in the community.

“There’s been backlash, and there’s going to be more,” Noor says. “This anti-Islam attitude isn’t going to go away after the election.”

To combat potential voter suppression, the group says it has trained volunteers to watch the polls on Election Day.

Asha Noor is involved in efforts to get Arab Americans out to vote [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]
Asha Noor is involved in efforts to get Arab Americans out to vote [Kurt Nagl/Al Jazeera]

The Islamic Center has been increasingly targeted with threats in the run-up to the election, Kazerooni says, adding that more people seem to be weary of him and his family when out in public.

“My wife was shopping when security guards stopped and questioned her, saying they were investigating a threat of terrorism,” Kazerooni says. “She was shopping.”

The imam has no problem being blunt about his feelings towards anti-Islam attitudes and towards the election.

“If Trump becomes president, then what comes next will be a terrible period,” he says. “Many of us would have to decide if we want to stay here and be insulted or pack up and go somewhere else.”

Support for Sanders

Kazerooni adds that for him, Clinton disqualified herself from the presidency years ago. He cites the former secretary of state’s support for invading Iraq, her role in Benghazi, and refusal to support Palestine and a two-state solution as reasons why.

Like many others in the Arab community, Kazerooni’s excitement for the election dissipated when Senator Bernie Sanders lost in the primaries.

“We were energised by [Sanders] and got behind him because he reached out to us,” says Amer Zahr, who travelled the US as an official surrogate for Sanders. “Look at what we did for him.”

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Zahr is a Palestinian comedian and activist who lives in Dearborn and travels the world with his politically pungent act.

He came to the US with his Christian father and Muslim mother when he was three years old. The turbulence in Palestine largely shaped his political views, which so happened to align well with those of Sanders.

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“He spoke to issues important for Muslims, like Palestine and militarism in the Middle East,” Zahr says.

Clinton’s “hawkish” attitude as secretary of state and her refusal to talk about Palestine make her unworthy of his vote, Zahr says.

His religiously split upbringing allowed him a place in both the Arab Christian and Muslim communities. From what he can tell, most Arabs are either undecided or voting for Clinton as the lesser of two evils.

Both Muslim and Christian Arabs have been victims of the campaign’s rhetoric because, as Zahr puts it, “Islamophobia tends to not be very picky”.

As for Zahr, he wants wants to see neither of the major party candidates in the Oval Office. He is voting for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

This is something Kazerooni is discouraging. In order to prevent a Trump win, he says, his community must avoid fragmenting the Democratic Party or voting for third-party candidates with little chance of victory.

A “shrewd vote for Clinton” is the only choice, Kazerooni says.

One community, different votes

But Trump’s rhetoric has not turned off all Muslim or Arab voters. In an October poll by Zogby Analytics, 12 percent of Arab-American Muslims said they would vote for the Republican nominee. Sixty-seven percent said they would vote for Clinton.

Abdullah Aibi, a 60-year-old immigrant from Iraq, says he is unbothered by Trump’s language. Why?

“Because that’s his right,” Aibi says following afternoon prayers. “He said what’s on his mind. I think he will give people jobs and fight terrorism.”

Talal Mohammad, 33, does not think voting will make much of a difference. But he will for sure not vote for Trump.

He says that since emigrating from Yemen eight years ago, he has not felt any racism in the US until now.

“I was in a store and a lady told me to go back to my own country, so I pulled out my passport and told her, ‘If I go, you go too’,” he says with a smile.

No matter the outcome of the election, Mohammad says, he is not scared.

“I come from a country where the president can do whatever he wants. Here, there are systems in place to protect us.”

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Source: Al Jazeera