Muslims and Arab Americans in Michigan aren’t getting attention from Republican presidential candidates

Chris Moody

DEARBORN, Mich.--A light snow was falling outside the largest mosque in the country, the Islamic Center of America, as the parking lot filled with worshipers at Friday prayers. Outside, four people passed out flyers in support of Ron Paul, which included Arabic and English translations of Paul's campaign message.

"Ron Paul's Plan to Restore America," the flyer read on the English side, and listed seven of Paul's campaign priorities, including: balancing the budget, cutting spending by $1 trillion in one year, and, of course, auditing the Federal Reserve.

The Arabic-language side, according to a translation provided by Todd Weston, Paul's regional volunteer coordinator for Dearborn, had a slightly different emphasis, including a mention of "these difficult times," and only four priorities--the three above plus an end to foreign wars. (The additional pledges on the English-language side were all domestic: lower taxes, entitlement reform, reduced spending on government employees and deregulation.)

The flyers were the brainchild of Weston, who had the campaign literature translated into Arabic by students at a nearby college. He pitched the plan to the campaign, but ultimately made the flyers himself, he said.

"When I got involved with the Ron Paul campaign, I felt that it was kind of an untapped voter base by the other GOP candidates and even the Democratic candidate, so I really thought it was a great area to pursue especially with Ron Paul's standing with foreign policy and civil liberties," Weston said.

The other Republican presidential candidates have all but ignored Muslim voters in Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday. As many Muslims here see it, the rhetoric and proposals of the candidates have repelled even longtime Republicans in their community.

That's one reason why Paul, a candidate who has questioned American aid to Israel and whose non-interventionist foreign policy has gained wide support among Arab voters, received an endorsement Friday from the Arab American News, a Dearborn-based newspaper published in Arabic and English.

"The Arab American News ... sees Dr. Paul's refreshing, forthright foreign policy philosophy as one of his greatest strengths at a time when the specter of a potentially catastrophic war looms over festering, misunderstood and misreported conflicts in the Middle East," the paper's editors wrote on Friday. "His positions are perhaps the best hope for even a remotely balanced policy in the troubled region that we've seen in decades."

Arab Republicans in the Detroit area say they are planning to announce a joint endorsement of Paul with about 150 mostly Muslim business leaders. In interviews with Yahoo News, those signing onto the pending endorsement expressed dismay with candidates like Newt Gingrich, who refers to Palestinians as an "invented people"--Arab Americans here jokingly call Gingrich "the invented candidate"--and Rick Santorum, for his hawkish stance on Iran and his stalwart defense of Israel.

"They've come out against practically every position that the Arabs in the community support," said Nasser Beydoun, the former head of American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn. "I don't think Republicans are focused on immigrants in general or Arab Americans. They're too busy catering to the fringes of the party."

Yahya Basha, a medical doctor in Royal Oak, Mich., and a board member of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, told Yahoo News he was frustrated with the lack of outreach from the presidential campaigns, and although he is committed to supporting former Mitt Romney, he expects a sizable number of his fellow Muslim and Arab Republicans in Michigan to cast a vote for Paul on Tuesday.

"As a group, we like Ron Paul," he said.

Those organizing the endorsement said they were trying to arrange a meeting or an event with Paul, who spent the weekend campaigning in Michigan, but have not heard back from campaign officials.

"We haven't really had any official outreach efforts in Michigan," said Gary Howard, a spokesman for Paul's national campaign, when asked about specific efforts toward Muslims. The candidate is planning to attend a Dearborn rally the night before the primaries sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn's Arab Student Union, a group with members of various faiths.

The Romney and Santorum campaigns, which are devoting the most resources to the tight Michigan race, did not return requests for comment.

Nationally, Republicans have become less popular among the Muslim population in recent years. Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds in the United States make up less than 1 percent of the population, but 76 percent of them approve of President Barack Obama's job performance, according to an August 2011 Pew survey. Almost half of the Muslims surveyed in the poll said they found Republicans to be "unfriendly" to the faith.

The relationship between followers of Islam and the Republican Party was not always so contentious. In the 2000 presidential election, before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the civil liberties crackdown and wars that followed, 7 in 10 Muslims supported the candidacy of former President George W. Bush, according to a poll at the time taken by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Bush made a concerted effort to engage with Muslim and Arab Americans while he was a candidate and during the early days of his presidency. Bush met with Muslim religious leaders in 1999 while he was governor of Texas, and then again in 2000 when he was the Republican presidential nominee. On Sept. 17, 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks, he visited a mosque about two miles from the White House, the Islamic Center of Washington.

That relationship began to crumble in the years following the attacks, as the Bush administration pushed for passage of the Patriot Act, argued for indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" and engaged in a war with Iraq in 2003. During that time, outreach to Muslims became less of a priority.

"Republicans did reach out in 2000, and then they didn't follow up," said Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who co-founded the Islamic Free Market Institute. "They didn't stay in touch."

In the 2004 presidential election between Bush and John Kerry, exit polls showed that 85 percent of Muslim voters supported the Democrat. Four years later, Obama captured 90 percent.

Now, more than a decade after Bush's first election, the Republicans seeking the party's nomination are not just avoiding Muslim supporters, they seem to be actively distancing themselves with inflammatory rhetoric.

So although there may be disappointment within the community with the Obama administration--which has continued most of the Bush-era policies that drove so many Arabs and Muslims from the Republican Party--the frustration is not enough to translate into Republican support, said James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.

"One side may be disappointing," Zogby said, "but the other side is scaring the hell out of you."

At the Islamic Center in Dearborn, after most worshipers had left following Friday prayers, the Paul volunteers departed as well, leaving flyers scattered across the parking lot, soaking in the snow.

"I don't vote," one man leaving the mosque told Yahoo News as he walked toward his car. "It's all shady politics."

Despite having the largest congregation in the country, Kassem Allie, the mosque's executive administrator, said he had received no official outreach from any of the Republican presidential campaigns.

"It's not surprising they wouldn't reach out to us," he said, pointing out that most Muslims in the area were Democrats. "Of course, it's not too late."

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