Shifting sands

Imam Husham Al-Husainy frames his words with photos as he describes the 180-degree flip among Iraqi immigrants regarding the war in their homeland. There are snapshots of jubilation in the streets of Dearborn as the war with Iraq began last year. Those images stand in stark contrast to pictures taken just a few weeks ago at another Dearborn rally, this one called by Al-Husainy to protest the turn that the war has taken.

Between those two points are more photos, graphic shots of charred corpses, disembodied limbs and bomb-blast carnage sent to Al-Husainy from Iraq.

As the spiritual leader for some 5,000 Shiite Muslims living in southeast Michigan, Al-Husainy has watched with growing dismay as promises of liberation have given way to an occupation that is doomed to fail unless the United States changes its tactics.

There is also a picture of Al-Husainy and other clerics conferring at the Pentagon with U.S. officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Al-Husainy’s message to them: The “logic of force” will not prevail in Iraq.

“I think the policy of the Pentagon is not wise,” says Al-Husainy, sitting in his office at the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn. “They have succeeded in capturing the land, but they have failed to capture the hearts and souls and minds of the Iraqi people.”

Al-Husainy holds an index finger to each side of his head and moves his hands back and forth.

“They don’t listen,” he says. “The words go in one ear and out the other.”

Al-Husainy’s message for the Bush administration is that the lofty rhetoric of a democratic Iraq must be backed up by action. The problem is that U.S. officials fear that if the Shiite majority were to gain control, a theocratic state along the lines of Iran would be the result.

As a consequence, complains Al-Husainy, the provisional leaders hand-picked to take “control” of the country at the end of this month are what the cleric describes as “yes-men.”

“They have installed a regime that will say ‘yes, sir’ to the orders of the [Bush] administration,” says Al-Husainy, who was born in Iraq. “That’s the whole plan.”

That, combined with unabated violence, has prompted a polar shift in the attitude of Iraqis toward their American “liberators.” That shift is mirrored in the political atmosphere among Arab-American and other Middle Eastern voters here in the United States.

Nearly four years ago, after more than two decades living in the United States, Al-Husainy, inspired in a way that he had not been before, voted in his first presidential election, marking his ballot for George Bush.

“I knew he would get rid of Saddam,” explains Al-Husainy.

But the image of American forces as liberators did not last long. It is quickly being replaced with that of “outsiders coming to occupy Muslim land,” says Al-Husainy.

It is easy to see ulterior motives — economic, military, political — behind the administration’s actions. In addition to distrust is frustration at the inability of coalition forces to quell violence and provide such basic necessities as reliable electric power.

Asked if Bush would again receive Al-Husainy’s vote, the cleric replies that he is uncertain. He’s not the only one in the Arab-American community expressing doubts that could play a role in November’s presidential election.

An April poll conducted for the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, revealed a stunning swing among Arab-American voters. The poll sampled Arab-American opinion in four states considered key battlegrounds in November — Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Combined, the Arab-American vote in those four states represents a likely turnout of 510,000. Michigan represents the largest bloc, with an estimated 235,000 Arab-American voters expected to cast ballots. Looking back to 2000, pollsters found that Arab-Americans in those four states supported Bush over Democratic rival Al Gore by a margin of 46 percent to 29 percent, with 13 percent supporting the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader.

“At the present, Kerry is in a position to completely flip these results by beating the President 45 to 28, with Nader at 13 percent,” according to the institute’s analysis of the April poll. “This represents a flip of more than 170,000 votes from the Republican to the Democratic column in these four states.”

“The Arab-American vote could play a rather significant role in November’s election,” says Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “The president is slipping, and Kerry has the opportunity to gain significant support.”

The poll includes Chaldeans, who hail from the Middle East but are neither Arab nor Muslim. Speaking the ancient language Aramaic, they are Catholic. Leaders in that community say their support of Bush remains steadfast.

“Chaldeans are 99.9 percent in favor of the changes that are occurring in Iraq,” says Adhid Miri, president of the Chaldean Iraqi American Association of Michigan. “We support U.S. efforts in Iraq, and are more likely than not to support a Republican administration.”

But the Arab American Institute poll suggests that even among Chaldeans support for Bush is waning, with 33 percent saying they would vote for Bush in a three-way race, compared to 46 percent for Kerry and 10 percent for Nader.

Nader, who is pulling 4 percent to 7 percent of the vote in national polls, performs stronger among Arab-American voters for several reasons: his Lebanese heritage, a pro-Palestinian stance and his support of an expeditious withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

For some, the question now is not whether Bush will get their support; it is a weighing of Kerry vs. Nader.

In the past, “doors of the Democratic Party were literally slammed in our face,” says Joseph Borrajo, president of the Dearborn-based Arab American Voter Registration & Education Committee. Fear that Arab-Americans would undermine the party’s historically strong support of Israel fueled the rejection, according to Borrajo, who says that attitude is changing, with Democrats now actively courting the Arab-American vote. But Kerry is doing little to inspire passion, says Borrajo.

A Nader supporter last time out, Borrajo says he is caught in a quandary.

“I like Nader a lot,” says Borrajo. “He makes so much sense.”

Kerry, on the other hand, is perceived as a typical politician, unwilling to take a strong stand on controversial issues, says Borrajo. Even so, the specter of another four years of Bush in the White House has Borrajo considering Kerry as “the lesser of two evils.”

Ismael Ahmed, executive director of ACCESS, a nonprofit Arab social services agency in Dearborn, sees the situation similarly.

“The Arab-American vote is up for grabs,” says Ahmed, who describes himself as a progressive Democrat occupying a spot on the party’s left wing. The problem for Kerry among Arab-American voters is that he fails to inspire much passion, says Ahmed. His criticism of the U.S. Patriot Act — provisions of which have been lambasted as an unconstitutional assault on civil rights — has been muted, and he has come out in favor of a Bush approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

In Michigan, as in a handful of battleground states, the Arab-American vote could be pivotal. According to a statewide poll of likely voters released last week by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA, Kerry and Bush are in a virtual tie here: Kerry gets 45 percent to Bush’s 43 percent with a 4 percentage point margin of error; Nader draws about 3 percent.

“As close as this race is going to be, I think the Arab-American community can make a big difference,” says Borrajo.

To the degree that it affects the U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly in regard to Iraq, the election is crucial, says Al-Husainy. At stake is America’s credibility, and the image it projects to the world.

That means allowing Iraq to pursue the kind of democracy it wants, free from U.S. manipulation.

“You can’t dictate in a democracy,” says Al-Husainy. If the United States is perceived as installing a puppet government in order to further American economic, military and political objectives, then the broader war against terrorism will never be won.

“America is so good at losing friends and creating enemies,” says Al-Husainy. If, however, the United States keeps its promise and fosters a truly democratic Iraq, “the people there will never forget it. They will be our friends forever.”

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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