When Dr James Zogby attended Abu Dhabi’s first Sir Bani Yas Forum in 2010, he was sat beside a pro-Israeli American decision-maker when an Arab woman started to sing. It wasn’t long before a number of people from the Palestinian Authority joined in and started to dance.
“This guy [sitting next to me] was in bewilderment; he asked ‘what is she singing?’ And I said ‘it is a typical love song, listen to the words,’ but he was still puzzled. I said ‘you don’t understand, this is the Arab culture, this is what they want’ but he just couldn’t see it. It was striking and it stuck in my head because this is a guy who is a major figure in American life who just didn’t understand who [Arab] people are,” Zogby tells Arabian Business.
“This unfortunately is the reality; he is no different from the common denominator of Americans who cannot even begin to comprehend [Arabs] or Arab leaders — Palestinians no less — laughing and dancing to a love song,” he adds.
As the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington DC-based organisation which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab American community, Zogby — an American-born son of Lebanese Christian parents — wasn’t shocked by his neighbour’s reaction. Instead he highlights the response as typically American following decades of misinformation shaped by an amalgamation of its education system, popular culture and political policy.
This argument forms the basis of Zogby’s 2010 book, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying To Us And Why It Matters. The book, based on anecdotal evidence as well as poll numbers from his brother’s polling company, Zogby International, seeks to explore several myths about the Arab world; that there is no Arab world; that all Arabs are angry; that the prism of Islam dominates their world view; and that they are imprisoned between past and present.
Zogby’s larger argument is that Americans do not listen to Arab voices and let their preconceived myths about the Muslim world dictate policy. “We [Americans] don’t listen to Arabs and because we don’t listen to them we don’t understand them and because we don’t understand them we judge them through this prism of misperception, this prism of misassumptions, and we don’t see them as they are,” he explains.
The popular uprisings seen during last year’s Arab Spring have done little to change wider public opinion, despite an initial understanding amid calls for greater democracy. “Before the Arab Spring, which was initially a wave of popular protest that was riveting and captivating, Americans said ‘I understand it’ but now they are afraid of it.
“There is a feeling that there may be something dramatically wrong with the region and that’s because they don’t know the people, don’t understand them and until there is a sustained effort to change American opinions about Arabs they are not going to understand any developments in the region,” says Zogby.
With this in mind, he commends America’s decision not to intervene in Syria. “I think the [US] Administration is on the right side of Syria… It is a mess, it is a tragic mess and no good right now can come of it but can America be militarily involved? No; there is no space for us to be involved,” he says. “Does Assad have to go? Absolutely; he has lost complete credibility, this is not a government, this is a gang that is ruling by brute force and by a bizarre sense of self righteousness that has blinded them from reality.
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