M. Scott Bortot

Posted by M. Scott Bortot on March 10, 2011 in News Clips

Washington — Arab-American civic activists say they are ready to help build democracy in their homelands — if asked.

The activists say they are excited to see political protest across the Arab world. And with a long history of fielding candidates and educating voters about their rights and responsibilities, they say they are ready to share their experience with new democratic movements.

“We firmly believe, as Americans of Arab descent, some of us who have been here for generations and some of us who are newer immigrants, we have an incredible connection to our countries of origin, and because of that, I think that we can play a very important bridge role when it is needed,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. The group is dedicated to the political and civic empowerment of Americans of Arab heritage.

Founded more than 25 years ago, the institute concentrates on campaigns, elections and policy research on issues important to the Arab-American community. Connected to Arab countries by heritage, institute members inform American policymakers about the region and meet with visiting Arabs devoted to improving civil society.

“We have given examples of how we have run our programs, from the most basic voter registration efforts to actual get-out-the-vote efforts, voter education … what we do in an off year versus a presidential year. We have had those conversations with colleagues in the region,” Berry said.

Yalla Vote, an initiative to organize voter-registration drives and community meetings about candidates and issues during election cycles, has often captured the interest of visiting delegations.

“When our friends from the Arab world come and see that, they always just respond so warmly to it and they say that it is perfect and makes complete sense,” Berry said. “I think that it is helpful to see the level to which civic organizations are directly involved in elections.”  

Basim Elkarra, chair of the Arab American Caucus of the California Democratic Party, tries to involve more Arab Americans in party politics at the local and state levels. To do that takes time and effort by Democratic Party volunteers.

“We go around the state, and we find different candidates to run as delegates within the party, teaching the process,” Elkarra said. “That, in turn, excites that particular community, and we see an increase in civic engagement [with] more leaders that we get involved from different communities all over the state.”

Educating the electorate involves spreading information about candidate platforms and legislation. In California, for example, voters should understand propositions, proposed laws submitted for approval by direct vote, if they want a say in government.

“In local politics, or state politics, this is always the case — where there are propositions that affect the lives of everyone, but they just don’t know which way to vote,” Elkarra said. “Some people just don’t have the time. Some people are just not that well-informed, and they want to turn to a trusted source about who to vote for and what proposition to vote for.”

Sherine El-Abd, president of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women and a board member of the Arab American Institute, said citizen participation is what creates vibrant democracies. She equates active citizens to parents who take an interest in the future of their children. “Being a good mother, being a good father, it means that you engage in your child’s life,” El-Abd said. “[The way] I look at government, especially a democracy, is that if you don’t engage then you would be partly responsible for shortcomings in the system.”

El-Abd, who served a five-year term as New Jersey’s commissioner on civil rights, advised people interested in politics to start locally and work their way up.

“They should attempt to become a county committee person” after joining a political party. “You go to your municipal meetings, you go to your council meetings, to your PTA [parent teacher association],” El-Abd said. “You start very local, and then you grow with the system because then you develop a real understanding of how things work. You build support for yourself or your platform, or both, and you take it from there.”

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