Abu Jimmy is just a memory

The Star Ledger today published my op/ed, entitled "Abu Jimmy is just a memory".
Abu Jimmy is just a memory - FDR is gone, and Arab-Americans are switching party allegiances again

by GEORGE AJJAN - 1195 words, 3 April 2006
(c) 2006 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

The recent political lynching by Passaic County Democrats of Sami Merhi has created a nationwide stir among Arab-Americans. Merhi, a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser, won the backing of local party bosses to run for countywide office, only to have it yanked a week later.

This betrayal by the Democrats has considerable repercussions for both political parties, especially in New Jersey, as they court the increasingly important Arab-American voting constituency.

But do Arab-Americans vote primarily Republican or Democrat, anyway? It's a complex question, and the answer begins with the name "Abu Jimmy."

Such a name is a kunya : an Arab custom of honor, addressing a man with the name of his eldest son. For example, we frequently hear politicians indicate respect by calling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen or "the father of Mazen." In a slightly different context, however, using the son's nickname indicates familiarity and fondness - such as my great-grandfather, whose eldest son was Yacoub. He cherished the moniker "Abu Jack" among his pals on Paterson's Mill Street during the glory days of Silk City.

Interestingly, this tradition also sheds historical light on the political leanings of the earliest Arab-Americans. Truly, many from that initial generation warmly referred to Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, whose eldest son was named James, as "Abu Jimmy," as if he were their chum. They loved FDR with fervor. Indeed, like many other Depression-era working-class immigrant groups, including Italian-Americans and Eastern European Jews, a large number of Arab-Americans found a natural home in the Democratic Party under the leadership of "Abu Jimmy."

As these communities began to prosper, their political leanings changed. As their standard of living rose, they associated more with Republican values.

In that era, Arab-Americans assimilated straightforwardly and determined their political orientation on the same mainstream concerns relevant to other emerging ethnic groups. As time passed, however, unique political issues arose for the growing community, especially concerning Middle East turmoil and the wholesale association of Arabs with terrorism. These calamities significantly affected their partisan preferences. For example, Walter Mondale's rejection of campaign contributions by Americans with Arabic surnames in the 1984 presidential campaign made many Arab-Americans Republicans for life. On the other hand, Jesse Jackson's sympathetic attitude toward the suffering of Palestinians and the catastrophe of the Lebanese civil war during his presidential bid recruited many to the Democratic side.

Furthermore, the increase in immigrants who practiced Islam rigorously, consequently encountering difficulty blending into American society, led many Arab-Americans to seek cover with other "disenfranchised minorities" in the Democratic Party. A greater number of devout Muslims, however, who hold similar disdain for decadent Hollywood culture as conservative Christians, found a natural home among family-values champions in the GOP. Ultimately, the community split about evenly along partisan lines. But approaching the 2000 election, the balance tipped heavily in favor of the Republicans, thanks to the skill of George W. Bush in reaching out to Arab-Americans with unprecedented vigor. First of all, Bush broke the mold in valuing American Muslims as fully integrated citizens. He forever changed the script of the standard presidential stump speech to read, "churches, synagogues and mosques." His campaign aggressively courted socially conservative Arab-American voters, both Christian and Muslim, like never before.

He also outflanked his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, on civil rights. No Arab-American will ever forget the second 2000 presidential debate in which Bush forcefully condemned the use of secret evidence against Arab-Americans while just minutes earlier Gore had launched a bizarre, superfluous attack on the Arab nation of Syria. The debate marked a turning point in the political disposition of Arab-Americans: That November, they gave Bush a decisive edge in states like Ohio and, most important, Florida, arguably propelling him into the White House.

America's tense political atmosphere following Sept. 11, 2001, however, swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Arab- Americans felt unfairly mistrusted in their own country, fearing hawkish laws somehow reminiscent of the undemocratic regimes from which many sought refuge here. Furthermore, their cynical discernment of the war on terror as a war on Arabs, coupled with Bush's closeness to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, immensely unpopular with Arab-Americans, soured the community toward the GOP.

Republican activists valiantly challenged such misgivings and delicately attempted to clarify the policies but with little success. These were the perceptions, and perceptions are reality.

Not surprisingly, in 2004 the Arab-American community flip-flopped, delivering John Kerry close to two-thirds of its ballots in a principally emotional anti-Bush vote. But recent events, especially the treachery of the Democrats toward an impeccably loyal 26-year devotee in Merhi, will certainly swing the pendulum back to the right. This watershed incident compounds the shameful manner in which Democratic officials across the country, but most dramatically in New Jersey, handled the Dubai Ports issue, involving a firm from the United Arab Emirates. While President Bush defended the Arab company, saying, "I am trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, 'We'll treat you fairly' ," his Democratic detractors, led by Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, engaged in reprehensible demagoguery.

Lautenberg deserves particular scorn for comparing Dubai to the devil. What he actually meant to say does not matter. Just as with Arab-American suspicions regarding the Patriot Act, perception is reality.

Can Democrats recover and keep the community on their side as they did in 2004? Unlikely. Arab-Americans had irrationally swung to the left out of frustration with Bush's policies, not out of love for Kerry, Menendez, Jon Corzine or Lautenberg. Those Democrats may think the Arab-American community supports them unflinchingly, but none of them even approaches the esteem of "Abu Jimmy." Quite the contrary; the Democrats are showing some very ugly colors at the moment by bluntly assailing the dignity of Arab-Americans. If there is one paragon virtue in the Arab culture, it is dignity. For that, they will pay handsomely.

The Democrats have become smug. They seem to treat Arab-Americans as playthings to use and abuse. They are dreadfully mistaken. The community will indeed question its political alignment once again because of Dubai, the mistreatment of Sami Merhi and more. By 2008, irritation with Bush's lightning-rod policies will dissipate and successive candidates will invoke a fresh, healthy debate on the issues again. With a well-constructed message targeting socially conservative Arab-Americans that astutely appeals to their sense of dignity, the Republican platform will be tough to beat.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, there is no "Abu Jimmy" in sight. If they do not find one soon, in all likelihood, the Arab- American community will again come home to roost in the GOP as it did in 2000. I say, ahlan wa sahlan . You are most welcome.

George Ajjan, a former Republican candidate for Congress from the 8th District in New Jersey, may be reached at george@ajjan.com.

O --- This article first appeared in the Star Ledger on April 3, 2006.