Posted on April 17, 2000 in Washington Watch

There is no single Arab American view on issues. Arab Americans are not a political party with litmus tests and requirements for membership. Arab Americans are a community that is still in the process of being formed out of many diverse parts.

Having said this, it is important to observe, that in addition to ethnicity there are many questions on which a substantial number of Arab Americans agree. And these shared views can be used to define an Arab American agenda.

A Zogby International (ZI) study recently completed for the Arab American Institute (AAI) sought to explore the attitudes of Arab Americans on a number of issues in order to determine the areas where consensus could be found, as well as to identify those issues that remain points of disagreement within the community. The study was a part of a larger effort conducted by ZI, which compared attitudes of six U.S. ethnic communities (African-American, Asian-American, Jewish-American, Hispanic-American, Italian-American, and Arab-American).

In this regard, the study is useful in two ways. It can provide a degree of certainty as Arab American leaders attempt to represent Arab American opinion to policy makers. If one is to organize Arab Americans, it is important to know how strongly the community holds to certain beliefs.

At the same time, because the study provides a detailed portrait of the views of each of the many diverse component groups within the Arab American community, it is possible to identify both the issues on which there is consensus and those areas where more work remains to be done to build a consensus.

It is important in presenting the findings of this study that it be understood that the diversity of views contained within the community is a function of who we are. We are not all from one place, with identical backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. Given, however, the extraordinary complexity of the Arab American community, and the relative newness of our community institutions, the degree of consensus that exists is impressive. (According to the study’s conductor, agreement of 70 percent or larger on an issue can be presumed to be a consensus view.) It represents a greater degree of unity than can be found in most other U.S. ethnic groups and, I dare say, a greater sense of shared beliefs than can be found in the Arab world.

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Domestic Issues

Arab American attitudes toward critical domestic policy questions are, with some slight variations, remarkably similar to those of most other U.S. ethnic communities. They represent mix of beliefs that run counter to the prevailing attitudes in both political parties. For the most part, U.S. ethnic communities are somewhat more conservative on social issues, while being more liberal on a number of economic policy questions. Because the matters covered here are not unique to the Arab American experience or to Arab American concerns, they are not the basis on which an Arab American agenda can be formed. Nevertheless, understanding how Arab Americans, as Americans, feel about these domestic issues, is important both to understand the community and to see it as part of the broader constituency of American ethnics.

Abortion, for example, has been one of the most hotly debated issues in recent decades. Arab American, like other Americans, are divided on this issue and hold rather strong views. For example, 52 percent of Arab Americans describe themselves as pro-life (that is, they are opposed to abortion in most cases) while 45 percent identify themselves as pro-choice (that is, those who approve of the right to an abortion, in most cases). 53.5 percent call for banning abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is at stake and 78.5 percent feel that parents of minors under 18 years should be notified if the child seeks an abortion. These views are more conservative than the U.S. population as a whole, which a recent poll shows is 48% pro-choice and 43% pro-life, but they are similar to the attitudes of other ethnic immigrant communities.

At the same time, 72 percent of Arab Americans support the use of the death penalty in cases of capital crimes. And 83 percent support treating 14 to 16 year olds as adults if they commit crimes using guns.

Also on the conservative side, 69 percent of Arab American support the use of federally funded vouchers to allow parents the choice of schools to which they will send their children. They oppose the use of racial preferences in hiring and school admissions and they support Republican plans that would allow individuals to invest part of their payroll taxes in personal retirement plans (instead of the federally mandated program).

On the more liberal side, 86 percent support using the federal budget’s surplus to support a federally sponsored health insurance program. 80 percent support increasing the minimum wage by $1 over the next two years. 76 percent support new gun control laws. 92 percent support strengthening the Social Security and Medicare programs. 93 percent support imposing strict government fines on businesses that pollute. And 89 percent support allowing patients to sue health insurance companies (HMOs). All these are more liberal attitudes supported by Democrats.

What is fascinating and bears repeating, is the extent to which these Arab American views are quite similar to the attitudes of other U.S. ethnic communities (Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans) covered in the study.

Another area where there is considerable consensus among Arab Americans and other ethnics is in their general attitudes toward U.S. policy in the world. 79 percent of Arab Americans have a favorable view of the United Nations and the same percentage strongly believe that the United States should work through the United Nations in addressing international crises. Only five percent feel that the Untied States should act alone.

Similarly 84 percent of Arab Americans feel that it is very important to keep immigration to the United States “open and fair”–a view obviously resulting from the fact that Arab Americans, like other U.S. ethnics, are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants to the United States.

Arab American Attitudes Toward Middle East Issues

It is on critical issues of U.S. Middle East policy and attitudes toward the Arab world that Arab Americans views are unique. Despite the diversity of the community (especially with regard to their country of origin and their generation in the United States–one-third of the Arab Americans in this study are immigrants, one-third are first generation born in the United States and one-third are second or third generation.) there is a significant consensus on a number of Middle East issues. This is important and provides evidence of a foundation on which one can build an Arab American agenda on issues.

Overall, Arab Americans hold that the Middle East, and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a very important issue for them. Over two-thirds place it among their top five issues of concern, while 79 percent say that a candidates’ position on this conflict is important for their vote. This attitude is shared by both those born in the United States (77 percent) and those who are immigrants (83 percent)–although it is more strongly felt by the recent immigrant Arab Americans, 61 percent of whom say that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the “single most important” issue in determining their vote.

Seventy-four percent of Arab Americans say that U.S. policy is biased toward Israel–a view that is equally shared by all generations and other sub-groups of Arab American. But 68 percent of Arab Americans agree with the Clinton Administration’s handling of the Middle East peace negotiations. It is somewhat surprising that this belief is more strongly held by the recent immigrant Arab Americans, 77 percent of whom have a favorable view of Administration policy.

On specific issues that are important to Arab Americans, there are important areas where consensus can be found. For example:

  • 87 percent of all Arab Americans agree that there should be a Palestinian state–with a strong consensus existing among all subgroups on this issue;

  • 81 percent support the sovereignty of Lebanon–with immigrants feeling somewhat stronger about this issue then those born in the United States;

  • 77 percent support securing Palestinian rights in Jerusalem–with 86 percent of immigrants and 72 percent of those born in the United States holding this view; and

  • 87 percent of Arab Americans support promoting human rights in Arab countries–with a strong consensus on this matter shared by all sub-groups.

Only on the question of lifting economic sanctions against Iraq is there a division among these various groups of Arab Americans. Overall 54 percent support lifting these sanctions, while 40 percent do not. Those who are immigrants feel more strongly about this issue (78 percent in favor of lifting economic sanctions) while Arab Americans born in the United State are less inclined (only 42 percent support lifting and 53 percent do not).

But it is interesting to note that on this question, there are changes taking place in the overall Arab American view. In similar, though more limited, studies done in 1995 and 1996, Arab Americans views on sanctions were even more divided. In 1995 41 percent of Arab Americans favored lifting the economic sanctions against Iraq and 41 percent did not. By 1996, the numbers had changed somewhat with 46 percent favoring lifting the economic sanctions and 39 percent opposing. The current 54 percent to 40 percent division represents some growth in support of the anti-economic sanctions sentiment.

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To understand the significance of these findings, it is important to keep in mind the extraordinary diversity of the Arab American community itself. In the past, there have been those, both in the Jewish community and among some separatist elements within our own community, who maintained that there was no such thing as an Arab American community and no shared beliefs that would define an Arab American agenda–this study shows that they are wrong.

The study shows that on general issues of domestic and foreign policy Arab American of all generations coalesce around a set of beliefs that place the community in the center of the American ethnic experience. On critical Middle East issues, Arab Americans come together as a distinct community. That any group representing so many different generations, countries of origin and diverse religions and experiences can form a consensus in excess of 70 percent on so many issues is quite impressive.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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