In the Arab world, where divergent opinions are almost as rare as changes in leadership, and where free speech is a luxury enjoyed only by a precious few, public opinion polls tend to have interesting results. For example, the Arab-American Institute, a Washington-based think tank, recently conducted a poll that revealed an overwhelming majority of Arabs hold unfavorable views of the United States. While the results of the poll were not surprising, especially given the ongoing situation in Iraq, the motives behind it were extremely questionable.
The poll was conducted by Zogby International, an organization headed by John Zogby (brother of James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute), and was conducted in six countries: Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon. But of the approximately 146 million residents in those countries, Zogby’s poll surveyed only 3,300 individuals. It is difficult to ascertain an accurate depiction of Arab public opinion from such figures.
The results of the Zogby poll imply that only drastic U.S policy changes will serve to gratify the Arabs. Further, they exonerate the Arab media from any role in the creation of unfavorable views of the U.S. and its policies in the Middle East. For example, according to Zogby’s poll, only 20% of all Lebanese are supporters of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, we know that an overwhelming majority of Lebanese agree with the U.S. policy calling for an immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
Results of the poll also find a meager 2 % of Egyptians in favor of the U.S. As an Egyptian myself, and one who is in touch with Egyptian public opinion, I find these statistics irreconcilable. Statistics from the U.S. Copts Association (the Christian Copts represent about 15-19% of Egypt’s population, or 12-15 million inhabitants) reveal that approximately 85% of the country’s Copts are in favor of the U.S. and its foreign policy. Copts, who have long suffered discrimination and persecution under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, welcome President Bush’s call for democracy and reforms in the Middle East.
Zogby’s manipulation of data comes as no surprise. Both he and the Arab-American Institute—operated by his brother—have expressed clear disagreement with the Bush administration over its policies in the Middle East and have openly supported John Kerry for president. Their message is clear: change in the White House will lead to change in U.S. foreign policy, which will in turn appease the Arabs. For example, in a September 2004 article entitled “Don’t Blame the Arab Media,” Zogby asserts that “as long as U.S. policy in the region remains as it is, these public diplomacy efforts are, at best, fingers plugging holes in a leaking dyke.”
So are Zogby’s “findings” indicative of the view on the Arab street? Poll results depend largely on the socio-political climates in which they are conducted, and any findings from the freedom-stifled Middle East must be regarded with some degree of skepticism. The education and general knowledge level of those polled also contributes to poll results; the UN’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report found that inhabitants of the Middle East are among the least educated in the world. Unfortunately, this educational gap is filled by antagonistic, government-sponsored media outlets, which serve as the primary educational resource of the masses.
But even within the monolithic structure of government-controlled Arab media, voices of dissent emerge. “The American suggestions for reform are not bad,” wrote the anti-American columnist Jihad Al-Khazen in Al-Hayat, “despite the intentions of the Bush administration, and they must not be rejected simply because they stemmed out of the U.S.” Similarly, Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa has stated, “We are with President Bush…Who, other than President Bush, can launch a war against terrorism? Who else will come to the rescue of people suppressed by dictators? And above all, who made democracy the new international system for all the people in this world?”
It’s obvious that an accurate understanding of Arab public opinion is much more complex than Zogby would like to portray it. In fact, survey results which claim to have found no difference in Arab opinion regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity, age, or gender are simply unimaginable and add nothing to our knowledge of the Arab mind. For instance, a poll conducted in the towns of Ghazir or Jounieh in Lebanon, where the majority of residents are Christians, would have totally different results from one conducted in Sabra or Saida, where the majority of the population are Muslim.
Even the Arab leadership itself has been pushed to admit that freedom deficits in the Middle East must be addressed. In March of this year, the twenty-two Arab League members unanimously endorsed a “commitment to pursue reform and modernizations…by consolidating democratic practice, by enlarging participation in political and public life, and by fostering the role of all components of civil society.” Despite the fact that very little has changed thus far on those grounds, such statements are indicative of a new policy direction that is fairly consistent with U.S. policy in the region.
Yet Zogby’s poll would have us believe that members of the Arab world have no interest in America or its policies – including the U.S. foreign policy agenda of spreading democracy and freedom to the Middle East. According to Zogby, Arabs don’t want to see their leaders freely elected or their human rights respected; their minorities do not yearn for religious or cultural freedom; and their women are content with the deprivation of their most basic human rights. The reality, however, is slightly more nuanced—America may not be popular right now among Arabs, but, as former Jordanian Information Minister Salleh Al-Qallab has said: “Most in the region desire change and want to improve their current situation; they support change, and some have no objection to it being imposed [from without] if it is impossible to [achieve it] from within by peaceful means and mutual persuasion.”
While Zogby’s results are far from scientific or objective, they should not be dismissed as entirely irrelevant. America has a serious credibility problem in the Arab world, and it must do more to communicate its message to the people in the region and bridge the gap between American intention and Arab perception. As long as Arab-American organizations such as Zogby’s continue to pander to the Arab media, however, their role in U.S.-Arab relations will be one of hindrance rather than support.
Michael Meunier is the Executive Director of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East, http://www.middleeastfreedom.org/