Donald Trump’s broadsides against Muslims and immigrants prompted leaders of the Bay Ridge Arab-American community to work hard this year to register new voters.
They’ve reported some successes, even while struggling against long-standing forces – ranging from some Arab Americans’ distrust of election processes in their home countries to an ambivalence about the U.S. presidential candidates to skepticism that one vote will matter.
“You vote, you exist. You don’t vote, you don’t exist,” said Zein Rimawi, 62, an ethnic Palestinian who is a co-founder of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge and serves as vice president of the Arab Muslim American Federation.
New York City’s Muslim population numbers around 450,000, according to the U.S. Census, constituting the largest Islamic concentration in the United States. Bay Ridge is home to the largest number of Americans who speak Arabic at home.
No statistic is available on what percent of Arab Americans are registered to vote in the city. They are not considered a single voting bloc, Rimawi noted: Arab Christians traditionally have leaned Republican based on their religiosity, fiscal conservatism and national security concerns, while Muslims recently have been shifting leftward, largely due to rising Islamaphobia. An October national survey of Arab Americans conducted by Zogby Analytics found that 52 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans, and 22 percent as Independents.
This year, a host of national Muslim groups, spurred by Trump’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S” and his insinuation that Muslim women are not allowed to speak publicly, mounted a campaign to enroll thousands of new voters, particularly in swing states.
Pastor Khader El-Yateem, leader of the first Arabic Lutheran church in America, has worked with Rimawi in shepherding local voter registration efforts. El-Yateem’s Salam Arabic Lutheran Church, on 80th Street, has enlisted volunteers to canvass heavily Arab residential blocks and visit mosques during prayer services, offering information and helping the unregistered to fill out registration paperwork.
Overcoming Barriers to Voting
He hopes this year’s efforts will pay off for the community. Historically, the biggest deterrence has been general disenchantment with elections, he said. In Bay Ridge, most Arab residents identify as native Palestinians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Lebanese or Syrians, whose governments have manipulated voting procedures, postponed elections indefinitely or suffered from frequent coups.
“The community also felt the backlashes after 9/11 and saw the U.S. involvement in the Middle East wars,” El-Yateem said.
Another barrier to voting: a lack of time.
“We are a very hard-working people, some working for 16 hours a day in grocery or convenience stores, and the last thing they think of is to vote,” El-Yateem said. “We have to change their mentality.”
Malik Hassan, a voter registration coordinator for Arab American Association of New York, belongs to a younger generation that embraces the change.
Hassan, a 19-year-old Brooklyn College student born to Yemeni parents, estimated that he registered 235 Arab Americans between September to mid-October. Most them, he said, live in southern Brooklyn, which includes Bay Ridge.
In total, the organization signed up around 350 new voters during the period, about 90 percent of them Muslim, Hassan reported. One of his registration pitches is that a strong showing will boost Arab American clout at the local level, where more issues directly affect his community. For example, the city in 2015 added two Muslim holidays to the school calendar, something the Arab-American community had pushed for years.
“We have to get people to realize that in order for things to change, people need to go beyond presidential elections and become active in grass-root elections too,” he said.