Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Yousef Munayyer: Obama shouldn't take Muslims and Arabs for granted

July 2, 2008

In October 2000, George W. Bush declared in a presidential debate that Arab-Americans had been racially profiled and targeted unfairly by "secret evidence" laws. This issue was so central to Arabs and Muslims in the United States that many cast their ballots for Bush.

The eight years that have followed have been difficult years for Arab-Americans. The administration could hardly be portrayed as friendly to their interests. The all-American principles of inclusion, on which Bush seemed to stand during the debate, went out the window with the suspension of habeas corpus, the offshore imprisonments at Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and the conduct of the most disastrous Middle East foreign policy in our history. It goes without saying that Arab- and Muslim-Americans, like most Americans, disapprove of the job President Bush has done.

But this year is different -- or so one would hope. This year the entire country -- and perhaps most of all Arab- and Muslim-Americans -- are ready for change. Once again, and more resoundingly than ever, a message of reform through inclusion is touted by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The senator from Chicago, home to the largest concentration of Palestinian-Americans in the nation, secured the nomination by distancing himself from the foreign-policy and civil-liberties stances of the Bush administration, as well as by championing the cause of working- and middle-class Americans and our veterans of war. For Arab- and Muslim-Americans, who for generations have toiled in automobile and steel factories, who have served in our armed forces and who have occupied every profession, Obama would seem like a shoo-in.

However, the senator should not take these votes for granted, and in the eyes of many Arab- and Muslim-Americans, he already has. Obama, who has criticized special-interest groups influencing lawmakers, delivered a rousing speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he outlined his views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The speech, calling for an undivided Israeli capital in Jerusalem, drew great ovation and put him to the right of most Arab- and Muslim-Americans as well as most Jewish-Americans who want to see a negotiated solution based on the 1967 borders. The stance Obama took is even to the right of Bush's road-map policy. In a letter to Bush dated June 24, he puts the onus on other Arab states for easing the hardship of the Palestinian people while calling for continued aid to Israel. For Obama to take such positions sends a very uncomfortable message to those who want to see a genuine Mideast peace.

What may be even more disturbing is Obama's attitude toward anything Muslim. When his far-right-wing opponents brand him as a Muslim because of his father's background, Obama's campaign responds by calling it a smear tactic. But this defender of civil rights, this champion of inclusion, should respond to his critics resoundingly that "Islam" and "Arab" are not dirty words.

Obama must work hard to repair the perception among Arab- and Muslim-Americans that they are expendable. These people are Republicans and Democrats. They want better lives, health care, good jobs, a strong economy, a safe and secure homeland and a foreign policy that espouses the values of equality and liberty -- just like all Americans. More than anything, Arab- and Muslim-Americans want to be included, but they also know that the only thing worse than the absence of hope is the false promise of it.

Yousef Munayyer is director of Information and Technology at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, based in Washington, D.C.

No comments: