Four Lean Years Ahead for NJ Arab Americans

By all accounts and despite the election results, 2009 shall be recalled as the year Arab and Muslim Americans in New Jersey heralded their political prowess. Arab and Muslim Democrats were very busy hosting and organizing events to maximize the community’s tribute to what incumbent Gov. Corzine has done and promised to deliver. Whether the community voted for Corzine in the large numbers expected is not yet known. Pundits have opined that Corzine's loss is attributable to the low number of registered Democrats who bothered to cast their vote. With Corzine's defeat, Arab American Democrats may have written their political obituaries. This fatalistic and rather premature reaction has no place in politics. But an honest look in the mirror is warranted to reassess and prioritize their plans for the next elections campaign.
Outgoing Governor Corzine will be fondly remembered for he has outpaced all his predecessors in integrating and mainstreaming the Arab and Muslim community. Corzine's enduring legacy is manifested by his strong public support of Imam Mohammad Qatanani and the creation of the NJ Arab Heritage Commission. His frequent presence at our homes, places of worship and events was always seen as a recognition and achievement. He so frequently and glowingly highlighted the role our community continues to play in New Jersey's economy, culture, political participation, and empowerment. He has appointed several Arabs and Muslims to various commissions. Strong rumors have it that Corzine will soon appoint the State's first Arab American judge.

I have worked closely with Governor Corzine and his staff to give birth to the NJ Arab Heritage Commission in 2008. After a four year campaign, NJ became the first state in the union to enact into law a distinct entity to honor, promote and perpetuate the heritage and contributions of Arab Americans. The Commission is a non-partisan endeavor comprised of 25 members representing the diversity of the 240,000 Arab American residents of the state. It was perhaps one of his crowning achievements when viewed in the larger context of the prevailing anti-Arab and anti-Islamic xenophobia. We are forever indebted to Corzine's gesture and legacy.

While a US Senator from NJ, Corzine was a critical voice in the US Senate advocating for the enactment of significant amendments to the infamous 2001 USA Patriot Act. In fact, I was appointed to serve on a committee named the Task Force on Civil Rights and Social Justice Issues. He was very eager to hear our views on ways to improve certain aspects of the Act which stripped away many of the freedoms we have come to expect as American citizens. We have had limited access to other government officials as compared to with Jon Corzine.

Corzine's honesty and desire for inclusiveness cannot be questioned and these endearing qualities did not cost him the gubernatorial election. All his money, alas, could not convince the NJ voters that he can solve their economic ills such as high property taxes and the other serious economic hurdles with which the state and nation are struggling. A political pundit argued that voters ultimately chose a fat man (Christie) over a fat cat, Corzine! The big question is whether incoming Governor will be as welcoming.
We have no reason to believe that the incoming Governor, Chris Christie, will not also be a friend of the community. He will find a community poised for immensely positive and tangible contributions in all areas. We are well-educated professionals, committed service providers, caring teachers and doctors. We are also hard working business entrepreneurs committed to strong family values and limitless educational pursuits. We have our resumes ready to serve in Christie's administration and on the hundreds of State boards and commissions. After all, our issues are no different from other ethnic, albeit besieged and underrepresented, communities, which color the NJ political and cultural mosaic. At his victory speech on November 3, 2009, Christie pledged to govern irrespective of citizens color, race, faith, or ethnicity. He stated in a Star Ledger interview that he would not be a sore winner. He will seek to build consensus and alliances.

But we have to admit that little has been either attempted or achieved during the elections to reach his campaign. This fate may have met many of the other ethnic coalitions, a voter block not aggressively sought by Christie. I have spoken to some Arab Republicans who admitted to having no luck building any relationship with the Christie campaign. It would be a surprise to learn otherwise. If this becomes our fate come January and how this political void is filled both depend on all of us.

It is often stated that Arab Americans are almost equally divided between registered Democrats and registered Republicans. It is not known if the even split also applies to Arabs living in New Jersey. It is however, political suicide to make the appearance that we are one large electoral bloc. The post 911 issues of civil rights and religious freedoms have been effectively supplanted by concerns for economic security, educational opportunity and access to government jobs. Our political leanings are influenced by generational narratives, national origins and religious affiliations. Additionally, foreign policy concerns while of great interest, and unlike presidential elections, play no visible role in gubernatorial elections.

Politics is always the subjects of endless controversies in Arab homes and gatherings. One clear message seems to always emerge: we need to always have strong contacts with the decision makers in both parties. Our involvement will require both the promise of our vote and our money and not only the justice of our many causes and concerns. Money and votes are the currency of politics. These are two critical and essential ingredients for political empowerment- a process that does not end with elections. We need to continually learn from our mistakes, benefit from others' successes and maintain an ever fluid organizational presence. Our presence in the Democratic Party has been cemented. Admittedly, we paid a very heavy price to be recognized. We all recall the Party's ousting of one of our leaders from the slate of candidates for Freeholder in Passaic County. Little materialized from our meetings with Corzine to restore the candidate. That sore experience taught us that politics is all about power or perception thereof.

Our presence in the State's Republican Party is essentially nonexistent. I have been unable to confirm but a small number of Arabs or Muslims serving in the Party's inner circles. Excluding two former Republican mayors, one Arab Christian and the other a Pakistani Muslim, there are no Republicans serving in any elected office at any level.

As for the rank-and-file, Arab or Muslim Republicans have no real organizational structure and no recognized caucuses through which their issues can be disseminated into the Party’s platform. Conversely, Arab and Muslim Democrats have semi-official caucuses. I was impressed with the young and energetic leadership exhibited by Sami Elmansoury and the seasoned wisdom of veteran politicians such as Prospect Parks Mayor, Mr. Mohammed Khairullah. Both men co-chaired NJ Arab Democrats for Corzine, a recognized entity in the Corzine 09 campaign. Arab Democrats have reached much deeper into the cocooned community and have been successful at voter registration drives and fundraising.

The fate of Imam Mohammad Qatanani, who is again the subject of deportation proceedings in New Jersey may prove to be a gauge of how the new Administration deals with the community. At the conclusion of the first trial, the judge ruled in favor of the Imam's petition for permanent residency, a verdict that was quickly appealed by the government before an Immigration Board of Appeals. The Board recently threw back the case into the judges' chamber for retrial.

Christie has known the Imam for many years and he has attended many events at the Imam's popular mosque in Paterson, New Jersey. In an interview with the Jewish News , Christie, then a US District Attorney for New Jersey, said this during the Imam's first trial proceedings in 2008: “My view is he’s always had a very good relationship with us, and he’s a man of great goodwill,” He further stated that his positive comments are “a reflection of my office’s experience with the imam over the past seven years. After I came in, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were looking to have a dialogue with the Muslim community, and we found Imam Qatanani to be a constructive force in attempting to strengthen our relations with that community.” It is often pointed out that Christie will deliver on his support for the Imam because he allowed one of assistant attorneys, Charles McKenna, to testify on behalf of the Imam. The community will undoubtedly solicit from the incoming governor public support for the Imam as it has received from Governor Corzine and all the leading politicians in the State. But the Imam's fate, should not be the litmus test of our relationship with the new Administration . We must steer away from being a one issue constituency.

Corzine is there no longer. and so are gone the Ramadan Iftars at the Governor's Mansion! Arabs and Muslim Americans, regardless of their political leanings, ought to extend their hand to the Christie Administration and wish it all the luck it will need to snap our state out of the economic stagnation and political corruption worries that led to his victory. The 750,000 Arabs and Muslims who proudly call New Jersey home are ready to serve in whatever capacity deemed needed. But we err if we just sit and wait for the phone call.

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About Dr. Aref Assaf

Dr. Aref Assaf has a doctorate in Political Science and International Law. He is president and founder of American Arab Forum, AAF, a non partisan think-tank specializing in advocating positive image of the American Arab community. Dr. Assaf was also a founding member of ADC-NJ Chapter and has served as its media chair for five years before serving as its president in 2004. He was also elected and served for one year as Board Member of the American Palestinian Congress. Dr. Assaf serves on and is a member of several state, national boards and academic organizations. These includes the American Society of Political Science and the American Society of International Law. Dr. Assaf is currently serving a second three-year term as a member of the New Jersey Governor’s Ethnic Advisory Council. His selection was the first of its kind for an Arab American to serve on this statewide council. Dr. Assaf writes frequently in several New Jersey papers about contemporary American Arab issues and perspectives. He has appeared on many television programs such as CBS’ Sunday Morning, CNN in addition to metro TV stations. Dr. Assaf is available for speaking engagements without any honorarium.

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