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Biden’s outreach to US Arabs and Muslims ‘falling flat’ amid Gaza war

Washington, DC – The front page came with a full-width photo of United States President Joe Biden and a stark message: “He lost our votes”, written in thick red letters.

That was the main headline for last week’s Arab American News, a bilingual weekly publication out of Dearborn, Michigan, catering to the area’s large Arabic-speaking population.

But as Biden campaigns for reelection in 2024, the newspaper’s headline serves as a bellwether for his prospects among Arab and Muslim American voters — and how his overtures to their communities are being received.

Many Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans have expressed frustration over the Biden administration’s “unwavering” support for Israel’s war in Gaza. Biden and his top aides have responded with an outreach effort over the last two weeks, in an apparent push to allay some of the outrage.

Those included State Department and White House meetings in late October with Arab and Muslim advocates, as well as the announcement of a first-ever national strategy to combat Islamophobia on November 1.

The US government’s rhetoric about the war has also shifted, with more explicit emphasis on protecting civilians and calls for “humanitarian pauses” amid the fighting to allow aid into Gaza.

But Palestinian rights advocates say that the Biden administration’s charm offensive is falling short.

“They’re trying to cover up. That’s why we’re not buying into this Islamophobia strategy. We’re not buying into these meetings,” said Abed Ayoub, executive director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

“We’re past that. We need action. We need this administration to show some leadership and not throw us crumbs. We don’t care about a meeting. We really, truly don’t. Nothing is coming out of those meetings obviously.”

Off-the-record meetings

A survey by the Arab American Institute last month showed a drastic drop in support for Biden in Arab American communities. Only 17 percent of respondents said they would back the president, down from 59 percent in 2020.

Similarly, an NBC News survey this week revealed that only 16 percent of Arab and Muslim respondents in the key swing state of Michigan said they would vote for Biden if the elections were held today.

Analysts say several factors contributed to this decline in support. Early in the war, Biden was unequivocal about his “unwavering support” for Israel but said little about the spiralling humanitarian situation in Gaza.

All the while, he pledged increased political and military support for Israel, asking Congress to provide more than $14bn in additional aid to the US ally as it bombed Gaza. Israel already receives $3.8bn in assistance annually.

Biden further enraged Arab Americans and progressives when he cast doubt over the death toll in Gaza, saying that he has “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using”. That death count has since surpassed 10,000.

But growing reports of domestic Islamophobia prompted a shift in the Biden administration’s tone. On October 14, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume was stabbed to death near Chicago in a suspected hate crime. His mother was badly injured.

Biden responded to the attack with a public address. “We must, without equivocation, denounce anti-Semitism,” he said. “We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.”

Off-the-record meetings with Palestinian and Muslim advocates followed Al-Fayoume’s killing.

On October 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he met with “representatives of the Arab- and Palestinian-American communities”, and a few days later, the White House hosted five Muslim advocates and officials in a meeting that was not publicised by the administration.

Dana El Kurd, a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera that these outreach efforts appeared “performative” and were “falling flat”.

“People are super angry at how the administration has approached all of this. They feel like it’s fuelling the flames of ongoing violence,” El Kurd said shortly after the meetings.

For her part, Yasmine Taeb, the legislative and political director at MPower Change, a Muslim American advocacy group, said the administration’s messages to Muslim and Arab Americans seem designed to address Biden’s slipping poll numbers, nothing more.

“I don’t see it as being genuine,” Taeb said of the administration’s push. “They’re in damage-control mode.”

Islamophobia strategy

Another facet of the White House outreach efforts is its national strategy to combat Islamophobia, announced last week.

“President Biden ran for office to restore the soul of our nation. He is unequivocal: There is no place for hate in America against anyone. Period,” the White House said in its announcement on November 1.

The administration did not provide a timeframe as to when the plan would be finalised.

Taking on hate is a national priority.

Today, @POTUS and I are announcing the country’s first National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia.

This action is the latest step forward in our work to combat a surge of hate in America. pic.twitter.com/pxZAn7RymY

— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) November 1, 2023

However, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the country’s largest Muslim advocacy groups, was quick to dismiss the White House’s push.

“The first and most important step that President Biden must take to address surging anti-Muslim bigotry is the step that American Muslim leaders and organizations have repeatedly called for: demand a ceasefire in Gaza,” CAIR said in a statement.

“Islamophobia is surging as a result of the Israeli government’s massacres of civilians in Gaza and the dehumanizing, racist and Islamophobic rhetoric used to both justify those massacres as the ‘price of war’ and foment hate against Muslims and Palestinians around the world.”

Last month, Biden described the thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza as “the price of waging war”.

Taeb said Muslim American advocates have been pushing for formal US measures to combat Islamophobia for years, which raises questions about the timing of last week’s announcement.

“Now finally in the midst of a genocide that’s happening in Gaza, because they want to mitigate the backlash that they have been getting, they try to now rollout this strategy to say they care about Muslim lives here,” Taeb told Al Jazeera. “The whole thing is just nonsense.”

Protester in Washington, DC holds sign that says, 'Genocide Joe, you lost my vote'
A protester in Washington, DC, holds a sign that says, “Genocide Joe, you lost my vote,” on November 4 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Palestinian American advocate Hanna Hanania also said the Biden administration’s outreach efforts were “too little, too late”.

“As far as the community itself and how it’s perceiving these meetings, I don’t think it’s making a huge difference,” Hanania told Al Jazeera.

“I think the community is extremely angry and very upset. And basically, there are so many voices saying: We should not be voting for Biden next time.”

He also criticised the administration for focusing on Islamophobia and largely ignoring anti-Palestinian sentiment, which affects Palestinian American Christians, as well as Jewish allies who support Palestinian rights.

‘It’s done’

Hanania also said the Biden administration is contributing to a perception of Palestinians as barbaric, when in fact they are victims.

He pointed to recent statements from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who invoked the 2017 neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, when asked about ongoing “anti-Israel” demonstrations at a press briefing.

Biden also made the false claim that he saw photos of decapitated Israeli children after the Hamas attack, Hanania added.

On Saturday, as tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC, to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, Biden was a top target of speeches, chants and signs that accused him of sponsoring war crimes against Palestinians.

But with Arab and Muslim communities appearing to move on collectively from Biden and his Democratic Party, many are left with no political home.

Republicans have expressed even more hawkishly pro-Israel views. Last week, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to ban Palestinians from entering the US and deport Palestinians already in the country who received visas after October 1.

Despite such initiatives, several protesters on Saturday told Al Jazeera that the “lesser of two evils” argument to get them to vote for Democrats no longer works given the mounting death toll in Gaza.

“They have no more votes — from me or my family or anybody,” Maria Habib, a Lebanese American demonstrator, said of the Democrats. “It’s done. I did vote for them in the past because basically, we don’t have a better choice. Now, it’s not even a choice.”

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