Posted on October 29, 2015 in Countdown

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Back in the Swing of Things

Thank you to all of those who joined us in Michigan or followed along with our National Leadership Conference this past weekend. We're happy to be back with Countdown as the election race heats up. With 377 days until the 2016 Presidential Election and less than 100 days until the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses, both the Republican and Democratic parties are starting to see some changes in the polls. After failing to increase their popularity on the democratic side, democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee dropped out of the race last week, leaving only three candidates left. Even better news for the remaining democratic candidates came from Vice President Joe Biden who finally silenced inquiry on whether or not he would run for president in 2016. The Vice President concluded “the window on mounting a realistic campaign… has closed.” With fewer candidates, Democrats can focus on the upcoming primaries, the first being in Iowa on February 1, 2016, and the second being in New Hampshire on February 9. Republicans, on the other hand, have not narrowed the field since their last debate. The most recent shift in polls taken by Republican primary voters shows Ben Carson taking the lead with 26% support and former longtime front-runner Donald Trump falling close behind at 22%. The rest of the Republican candidates “lag far behind in single digits,” but seven out of ten Republican primary voters say that it’s too soon to make up their mind about which candidate to vote for next year. With only 96 days until the Iowa Caucus, voters will soon have to make a choice, which will give the nation a more accurate understanding of who could really be the next president.


Politics of Exclusion Redux

In his remarks at the AAI conference this past weekend, Governor Martin O'Malley briefly commented on the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He said, "like everyone here, I have been deeply concerned about the recent developments in Jerusalem and cities across Israel and the West Bank," and then cited the numbers of Israeli and Palestinian casualties. He described all those affected as "brothers and sisters, and all of them leave behind bereaved families with holes in their hearts." His statement neither assigned guilt nor blame, but rather focused on the human toll of the violence and he called for all parties to resume negotiations. It's difficult to find fault in his statements, no matter your politics on the issue. Still, Jeffrey Goldberg took to twitter to claim that Gov. O'Malley  is "evidently not going after the Jewish vote," with the retrograde implication that reaching out to the Arab American community should preclude a candidate from receiving support from American Jews. It goes without saying that this is unacceptable, and we're glad there has been pushback in the media. Peter Beinart said that "recognizing that Palestinians are dying too…shouldn't be controversial." There should be nothing radical about a Presidential candidate speaking to the Arab American community or recognizing that "Palestinian lives matter too." AAI was founded in 1985 to respond to exactly this exclusionary approach that dissuaded politicians from reaching out to Arab American voters. The Arab American community has come a long way, but episodes like this one where controversy is wrung out of benign remarks, reveal that there is still much work yet to be done to end the politics of exclusion. The more than 200 Arab Americans from 17 states who gathered in Dearborn to hear Governor O’Malley (and other presidential candidates) are organizing our vote and demonstrating that this stuff won’t go unchallenged anymore. 


Candidates Speak with the Arab American Community

At last weekend’s National Leadership Conference attendees heard from various presidential candidates.  You already know Gov. O’Malley was there with us and he vigorously addressed anti-Arab bigotry. Governor Kasich and Senator Lindsey Graham both addressed attendees via video. Kasich congratulated the participants on organizing, and Senator Graham asked Arab American voters to not get disheartened, and said “Our diversity is our strength…some things are being said that aren’t in the spirit of who we are as a nation.” Senator Bernie Sanders received the loudest applause after addressing profiling of the Arab American community head on. As Senator Sanders said, “If we want to end institutional racism in this country. And close the loopholes on racial profiling by law enforcement, we must join together to demand change. At a time when the Arab American community is being profiled by law enforcement and targeted by right wing extremists, AAI’s mission of fostering civic engagement is exactly what we need. The brutal murders in Chapel Hill last February, the New York Police Department’s unconstitutional surveillance program, and a young boy’s treatment for bringing a homemade clock to school is forcing America to confront a truth minorities face every day. We strive for a system of justice for all, but we often fall short.” 


Our Syria 'Agenda'

Over the weekend, we had 15 organizations - including two leading Syrian American orgs - co-sponsor a full day of programming that elevated the Arab American community's urgent, united call for increased U.S. assistance to refugees. Some people, we guess, weren't quite as thrilled with that "agenda" as we were. Accusations over the ever sophisticated social media echo chamber shyly came up, saying the we were "silencing Syrian voices" (ummm....what about that Syrian refugee we highlighted twice?) and even more ridiculous accusations of AAI promoting a "clear agenda" and stumping as "Assad apologists" (really? he was referred to as a dictator and butcher from the podium several times at the NLC alone), and we were pretty clear about our agenda: increased U.S. assistance to refugees). We are big kids and understand that criticism comes with the territory but to attribute false agendas when we were completely transparent is especially troubling since we worked to unite folks around a humanitarian agenda. We know that our community spans the political spectrum when it comes to a framework for ending the conflict in Syria but that was not our focus. Surely, saving children is something we can all get behind? And if you can't get with us on that agenda, attacking in social media will not move us. Actually, nothing will so let's move beyond the silliness and do things like ask the President to take in more Syrian refugees or endorse privately funded refugee resettlement. It feels good to get work done.


Back to Reality

At our National Leadership Conference we devoted an entire day to focus on the refugee crisis and what the United States and the Arab American community can do to help. The crisis is of vital importance and to quote Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley "what to do about the root cause of this humanitarian crisis may be complex, but helping refugees is not." As evidenced above that complexity isn't fully appreciated by all following this conflict. It is clear though that the U.S. should lead in helping to address the catastrophic human toll. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has been one of the strongest voices on the Hill on this issue, submitted a video message to the conference in which he highlighted the impact the "the humanitarian crisis of our time" is having on children forced to be out of school, and pushing countries in the Middle East that are accepting refugees to "the breaking point." We were proud to have 15 national, international, and organizations cosponsoring our programming on the refugee crisis. On our second panel Jen Smyers of Church World Service stressed the need for advocates to not only ask for increased numbers in terms of resources and refugees accepted but to ensure that increased numbers of refugees are actually resettled in our country: "already there are 20,000 people who UNHCR has already referred to the United States, the United States just needs to go through the processing." Look for a report of the tangible things we must do shortly.


The Next Generation

At our conference we gathered hundreds of Arab American leaders from across the country. A third of those in attendance were either high school or college students. The turnout of active Arab American students demonstrated the hopes and aspirations of younger generations to enter into politics and become more engaged on both the local and national levels. Many great conversations and passionate responses came out of this year’s conference. AAI was extremely happy to have been able to provide a platform for many young voices to share their stories and the great work they are doing in their communities. As a result of a growing conversation regarding the presence of young Arab American voices, we will be convening an intimate group of young leaders in early 2016 to continue the work started and build for Arab American Leadership Days in the Spring. Yes, we are talking about April 2016 already so stay tuned for more information in the weeks ahead.