NEW YORK - Arab Americans are expected to vote in large numbers Tuesday, despite concerns over voter intimidation and weak outreach from the presidential candidates, representatives of major community organisations say.
The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has set up a voter protection unit staffed by lawyers to help dispel rumours that may have prevented some from going to the polls in the past.
'As always, there will be voter intimidation,' predicted Abed Ayoub, one of five attorneys attached to the unit. Enthusiasm for the election is higher than it was in 2004, he contended, pointing to a recent ADC-sponsored event in Michigan that saw at least 500 Arab Americans register in just two days.
At the same time, the ADC has received hundreds of calls over recent months from Arab Americans who mistakenly believed they may have been ineligible to vote.
'One rumour was that if you are in foreclosure, you can't vote,' Ayoub said. Another is the misconception that those who couldn't read or write in English -- often a problem for elderly Arab Americans -- would not be allowed to use translators.
But the greatest fear is of an incident like the one at the 1999 municipal election in Hamtramck, Michigan, where dozens of dark-skinned Arab Americans were asked to take a citizenship oath before voting. The move caused many to avoid the polls for fear of embarrassment.
Even in more recent elections, a number of complaints were made to ADC, though never made public, the lawyer said. 'This year we want to attack the problem before it happens,' Ayoub said.
Votes of the estimated 3.5 million Arab Americans could be pivotal, especially in swing states. And though a September poll by the Arab American Institute showed that Sen. Barack Obama was far more popular -- with a 54 percent to 33 percent lead over Sen. John McCain -- it also found that 20 percent of Arab Americans are not enrolled in any political party. And Arab organisations say both presidential campaigns have largely failed to recognise Arab Americans as an important voting bloc.
'Neither party has done a lot of outreach to the community,' said Lelia Al-Qatami, ADC's communications and cultural affairs director. 'Ethnic outreach is very common, but we haven't seen any with regards to the Arab community.'
The Obama campaign briefly had a liaison to the Arab American community, she acknowledged. But the liaison, Mazen Asbahi, resigned 10 days after his appointment in early August, after the Wall Street Journal ran a story alleging that he may have had ties to a fundamentalist imam. The Arab American Institute called the Journal's claim 'vague and specious.' But the incident was just one of many that upset Arab Americans.
Many Arab Americans also felt let down by the Obama campaign this summer when two Muslim women wearing headscarves were barred from appearing seated behind the senator in a television shot at Detroit rally. And there's been disappointment over McCain's recent response to supporters who called Obama 'an Arab'. By defending Obama as 'a decent family man', McCain drew fire from Arab American Institute director James Zogby, who issued a statement noting that Arab Americans were 'also decent men and women'.
'We would have liked to have better contact from both sides [of the presidential race],' said Christina Zola, AAI communications director. 'The racism on behalf of staff or supporters should have been dealt with better.'
A feeling of alienation from the two campaigns was also voiced by the Arab American Political Action Committee, which decided not to endorse either presidential candidate. And neither campaign requested an endorsement, the AAPAC said.
'Those candidates who are not willing to make the effort to request our support and pursue it respectfully are not worthy of our vote, regardless of who they are,' the AAPAC said in its Oct. 11 statement.
Both Obama and McCain have also been criticised by Ralph Nader, an Arab American of Lebanese descent and the Green Party presidential candidate. Nader challenged both McCain and Obama to visit a Muslim place of worship before Election Day, 'like they [visited] churches and synagogues,' according to a statement on Nader's campaign website.
Still, hundreds of Arab Americans are campaigning for Obama or McCain, the ADC said, while the AAI has recruited several hundred volunteers to help register Arab voters, as part of the Yalla Vote Campaign. (Yalla means 'come on/let's go' in Arabic.)
'We need to be involved in this election,' said Mohammad Al Filali, outreach director for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, New Jersey, home to one of the greatest concentrations of Arab Americans. 'We cannot allow our voices to be muzzled.'
At least 100 Arab Americans registered to vote in the space of a few hours during an event to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in early October, Al Filali said. He said the community was energised by the election, despite the perception that the word Arab has 'all of a sudden become a curse' in campaign rhetoric.
Samir Issa, a software engineer who took part in the event, said he was still supporting Obama, the abrupt departure of the candidate's Arab American liaison notwithstanding. 'I lost some trust in him [Obama], but not all, because the other choice is even worse,' said Issa, 36. 'He's just trying to win, whatever the cost.'
Community involvement is another problem. The campaigns 'pay closer attention to people with money,' Al Filali said. 'We are new to the game of politics. We have to make ourselves known.'