Features

Mideast meets Midwest

Politics | Middle Easterners form a large voting bloc in Midwest swing states, and many have reason to support the war on terror

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

Some of the scenes could have been Republican National Convention flashbacks: raucous applause for the topple of Saddam Hussein and chants of "Four more years!" But in this case, the 800 or so Americans cheering President George Bush's foreign policy were of Middle Eastern descent-a constituency that many think turned on him after 9/11.

The outsized gathering at Washington's Wardman Park Marriott Hotel earlier this month pledged its support for democratic reform in the Middle East and the war against terror. But as a preelection event, attendees more pointedly wanted to show that Muslim and Arab advocacy groups who criticize President Bush do not speak for the entire Middle Eastern community.

Some 30 groups represented Christians, Muslims, and Jews, hailing from countries ranging from Sudan to Iran. Underscoring their support for the president, organizers issued Mr. Bush an invitation to keynote the event. Many are naturalized Americans who fled political repression in their homelands and formed or joined advocacy groups after finding refuge in the United States. Others, such as Lebanese-American André Savelieff, do not subscribe to narrow cause groups. An Ohio manufacturing engineer who came to the United States in 1976, he described himself only as a "concerned U.S. citizen." He had strong words for John Kerry, whose views on the war in Iraq from televised debates were fresh on his mind.

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"I would have had more respect for him if he'd said 'It's the wrong war and we're getting out,'" he said. "Where's the conviction if he says it's the wrong war but we'll fight it? It's the right fight. It's the right fight for all of us."

The United States has about 3.5 million Arab-Americans, three-quarters of whom identify themselves as Christian. One-third live in four swing states-Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. While more voted for Mr. Bush than Al Gore in 2000, their support for him has wilted in the wake of the Iraq War and perceived profiling of Muslims and Arabs post-9/11: Authorities have detained 1,200 Arab-Americans and Muslims for minor immigration infractions in their efforts to root out would-be terrorists. With a tight election, political action committees and advocacy groups among Arab-Americans are fighting harder than ever to get out the vote.

"The issue of foreign policy, especially for these people, is crucial," said Walid Phares, one of the convention speakers and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They all have families there."

Mr. Phares says Christian Middle Easterners now living in the United States, comprising mostly Lebanese, Copts, and Chaldo-Assyrians (predominantly from Iraq and Syria), are pro-Bush. They appreciate him for separate reasons: increasing diplomatic pressure on Syria, succeeding in the topple of Saddam, or focusing with forcefulness on reforming vicious regimes.

Muslim Middle Easterners remain divided in their support for presidential candidates. Shiites who fled from Islamic revolution in Iran, or suffered under Saddam, lean toward Mr. Bush. Sunnis from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere may favor Mr. Kerry, says Mr. Phares, because they think Mr. Bush has not done enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Nor do many Sunnis like the idea of Iraq's Shiite majority gaining preeminence.

Still, two newer Muslim groups at the convention-formed after 9/11-while not openly endorsing Mr. Bush, plainly support his policies. Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, drew applause and handshakes when he acknowledged that radical Islam was breeding terrorism.

"We admit we have a problem with extremism and support for terrorism in our local communities," he said. "Rather than deny that we have this problem, rather than go on the defense and accuse everyone else in the world that recognizes this as a problem of being anti-Islam, we say, 'No, we have a huge problem!' Most of the terrorism in the world today is being conducted by Muslims. I say this because we are the only ones who can defeat this."

M. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy was even more emphatic: "Other groups have put internal religious and cultural reform as secondary and tertiary. We put that primary."

While Mr. Nawash did not support the war in Iraq, he says he supports the president's overall goals in the war on terror. His group believes democracy must be accompanied by internal political and religious reform to succeed. Other groups, he said, such as the prominent Council on American-Islamic Relations, assert the status quo that has bred terrorism in the Middle East. Its leaders "represent a very specific Muslim," he said. "They reject the separation of religion and state."

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