Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hearts and minds

Abu Ghraib will reinforce the already well-entrenched perception that the United States is waging a war on Muslims and Arabs and cares nothing for their interests. However, before September 11th, elected officials were reaching out to Muslim-Americans and even continued to do so afterwards, though they were no longer willing to stick their necks out quite so far.

Michelle Goldberg, "Banished from the American dream," Salon, April 26, 2004.
[T]he Kesbeh family tried everything imaginable to remain in the United States. They enlisted the media, briefly becoming a cause célèbre in Houston, where protesters held vigils on their lawns and local churches offered to shelter them from the immigration authorities. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a bill in the House that would have granted them legal residency. Republican Rep. Daryl Issa, an Arab-American from California, spoke out on their behalf, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy reportedly intervened with immigration to delay their deportation.

In post-9/11 America, though, it proved impossible for a family of illegal Arab immigrants to garner enough political support to stay. So on March 28, 2003, they were put on a plane bound first for Amsterdam, Netherlands, and then for Amman.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee saw the family on TV, and a week later, she made a public statement praising them as the embodiment of America's values. Soon, there were stories in the Houston Chronicle about the "Palestinian Cleavers" and reports on Amy Goodman's radio show "Democracy Now." Lee introduced a resolution in Congress that would have granted the family legal residency.
Under pressure from New Jersey's Arab community, Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli agreed to introduce a companion bill to Jackson Lee's in the Senate, and Sen. Edward Kennedy intervened with immigration to have Sharif and Alaa released while the legislation was pending. The family's deportation was stayed for six more months.

Asmaa was in the hospital waiting to go into surgery for a hernia when Noor told her that their bill had found a sponsor in the Senate, and that they might be able to stay. She fell to the floor, thanking God and crying with happiness and relief.

But Torricelli, in the midst of an ethics scandal, withdrew from the Senate race at the end of September. After that, the Kesbehs were unable to find another champion in the chamber.

The publicity their case had generated began to backfire, with the right seizing on their story as an example of Democratic squishiness on illegal immigration. Michelle Malkin, the caustic conservative author of the book "Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores," wrote a syndicated column called "Lawmakers Who Love Lawbreakers," which excoriated those politicians who'd risen to the Kesbehs' defense. Senators that initially had seemed sympathetic backed away.
Even though scandal prevented Senator Torricelli from following through, the point remains that the Arab community was successful in pressuring him. September 11th not only was the impetus for the deportation of the Kesbehs and others like them, but also made it difficult for elected officials to stand up for Arab and Muslim Americans.

Sometimes you have individuals who support homosexual values, abortion, and marijuana legalization, but at the same time take an anti-Israel stance. BOOM! The lesser of two evils!

It seems that no matter how many times Americans intervene on behalf of Muslims in situations like Kosovo and Bosnia going back to Suez and beyond, the United States will never earn enough merit in the eyes of Muslims to make up for its support of Israel. Fair or not, in the eyes of Muslims, Israel/Palestine supersedes all other considerations.

But even on that front, do American elected officials invariably side against Muslims and Arabs? One of my very first posts argued that US foreign policy towards Israel/Palestine is better explained by electoral politics than elaborate conspiracy theories. Most Republicans' positions on Israel/Palestine will be determined by the staunchly pro-Israel attitudes of their evangelical Christian constituents and those of most Democrats by the staunchly pro-Israel attitudes of their Jewish constituents. But it follows that some elected officials, specifically those dependent on Muslim or Arab votes, will express sympathy with the Palestinians.

The voting records1 on 107th Congress House Resolution 392 and 108th Congress House Resolution 294 bear this out, though a comparison between the two shows just how difficult it is for elected officials to show sympathy for the Palestinians when American voters feel threatened by Islamic terrorists.

House Resolution 392, 2 May 2002, Expressing Solidarity with Israel in its Fight Against Terrorism
NoesAnswered "Present"Not Voting
New Jersey-11
New York--1
North Carolina-21
West Virginia11-

House Resolution 294, 25 June 2003, Condemning the terrorism inflicted on Israel since the Aqaba Summit and expressing solidarity with the Israeli people in their fight against terrorism.
NoesAnswered "Present"Not Voting
New Jersey--1
New York--1
North Carolina-1-
West Virginia1--
Source: Office of the Clerk, US House of Representatives

These voting records show Representatives from California and Michigan willing to publicly express sympathy with the Palestinians, though either that willingness or their numbers were much reduced by June 2003, when Resolution 294 was voted on. Open sympathy with the Palestinians could lead to perceptions of being "soft on terror," which would likely have been problematic in the first post-September 11th Congressional elections. The House of Representatives that voted on Resolution 392 took office before September 11th, as did George W. Bush, whom Stephen Waldman has credited with coining the rhetorical innovation "churches, temples and mosques" as a candidate.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that California and Michigan are home to two of the largest Muslim communities in the United States. Though their frightened neighbors may have demanded Representatives with a harder line on terrorism on Election Day 2002, some of those elected in 2000 were clearly unafraid of displaying pro-Palestinian sympathies even after September 11th.

Though the numbers are small (and after 2002 almost insignificant), what this shows is that, on the issue of Israel/Palestine, American elected officials have demonstrated a willingness to court Muslim voters that was largely destroyed after September 11th. If Arabs and Muslims, especially Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, want to counter the pro-Israel leanings of American foreign policy, they must win over the hearts and minds not only of American government officials, but American voters; they cannot afford not to. Just as Abu Ghraib has damaged the American struggle to win Arab/Muslim hearts and minds, September 11th damaged the Arab/Muslim struggle to win over American hearts and minds. The tragedy is that it occurred just when they were making some real progress (unlike Abu Ghraib).

1I totally busted my ass researching voting records and coding these tables, so if you want to borrow them, I'd better see some credit.
2On June 25, 2003, the Aspen Wildfire, which ultimately scorched 85,000 acres just north of Tucson, was still burning, probably explaining the failure of 6 of Arizona's 8 Representatives to vote.