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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“Change has to occur but it has to be thoughtful change and who and how do you pull the strings on the different sides to come up with a calming down — which is what we ought to be seeking, not adding gasoline on the fire. It’s like a tinderbox and everyone wants to throw matches, I am not sure that it’s the right way to go. I think with the US the cautiousness is right,” he adds.
American misconceptions about the Arab world begin at a young age, in an education system that fails to teach children anything significant about Arab life, says Zogby. “In our secondary schools if Arabs are mentioned at all is it’s either the other side of the Arab/Israeli conflict or a section on Bedouin life.”
While American students are taught just as little about Chinese or African culture, Zogby points out that the US “isn’t at war in China and hasn’t sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Africa”.
“There is a responsibility on the American side to change the educational system. I cannot dictate what Hollywood does but I can say that we have to improve what we teach our kids. I think that if you start there you begin to change the dynamic going all the way up. So in other words if people see a movie and it doesn’t resonate with them then they will reject it, they read a news story and say ‘that’s not fair, it doesn’t tell the story of Arabs as they really are’ then that will make a difference.”
American foreign policy post 9/11 has only served to fuel declining relations, he adds. Although Arabs were initially optimistic about improved relations following the appointment of Barack Obama in 2008, a 2011 poll by the Arab American Institute found that in the two years since his now-famous Cairo speech, ratings for both the US and the president have significantly declined. Rather than seeing America as a leader post-Arab Spring, the majority of those polled considered “US interference in the Arab world” the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East. Zogby — a Democrat — points to consistent opposition in Congress as the main reason for “stymieing every effort Obama” has made to improve relations with the Arab world including closing down Guantanamo Bay, seeking to build ties with the Muslim world and blocking the peace process, as the most significant reasons for the decline in popular opinion.
“The result is that we are stuck. Most people don’t understand what Obama has been trying to do and therefore Republicans were able to block his efforts and he didn’t have the wind in his sails because there was an uninformed public,” says Zogby.
He does, however, warn that while the current president may have disappointed the majority of Arabs, a government change with Mitt Romney as president is likely to result in relations between the Arab world and America decline even more significantly. “The other side basically stands for the very policies that got us into the hole to begin with,” he explains.
“[Obama] didn’t get handed a magic wand, he got handed the shovel that George Bush used to dig the holes and I think he tried to stop digging. But from everything I know and from everything I have seen and from the advisers on the Romney team, they are going to keep digging some more; there is not a country that they don’t want to bomb and I clearly worry about that.
“I worry about the fact that we didn’t learn the mistakes of Iraq, that we didn’t learn the mistakes of the Israeli/Palestinian shield. He [Obama] did but his hand are tied and they [the Republicans] are going to have free reign and that worries me,” he says.
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But while it is evidence that Zogby is frustrated by the failings of American policy, he doesn’t gloss over the faults of the Arab world, which he says have done little to demystify popular opinion in the US. Engaging in public relations exercises outside of state visits is key, he argues.
“Americans need to know Arabs as people and that means that Arab countries have to take more seriously the need to bring themselves into the American context. I always make the point that there isn’t a week that goes by when that Israelis aren’t travelling on speaking tours,” he explains.
“I remember once getting a question from an Arab diplomat who said ‘I read [Binyamin] Netanyahu is in Birmingham, Alabama — why is he in Birmingham?’ And I said ‘because there are people there’. Victims of Palestinian violence are travelling the country but where are the Palestinian victims?”
Saudi Arabia sent some 66,000 students to study at American universities in 2011, making them the fastest-growth source of foreign students in the US, ahead of China, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. These students, as an example, should be empowered by their government to engage in public relationS exercises, says Zogby.
“In all of the polling that we do [at the Arab American Institute] the number-one issue for Americans is that they want to meet Arabs…If Americans don’t know them, can’t see them and can’t relate to them then they are not going to understand them,” he explains.
“Sometimes you can look at a football game, one team is on the field and the other is not and we’ve been maligned. Arabs have been maligned and objectified and stereotyped. The film industry is guilty, public opinion is shaped by popular culture and the [US] education system doesn’t do the job because people don’t have a base knowledge to see the world through stereotypes.
“People say ‘oh I know Arabs’ and then they relate to some cultural image that they have and the only way you defeat that is by introducing them to the real people. There is a [perceived] sense that the Israeli narrative is a real one and the Arab narrative isn’t understood; it is viewed as a manufactured one. The only way that the narrative gets real is when people hear it and hear it from people that they believe are just like them. Unless an American can say 'they are just like me', the change won’t happen,” he adds.
Funding remains the largest impediment to the work of the Arab American Institute that Zogby heads, as well as other Arab American organisations that operate in the US.
“The fact is that their guys give money, our guys don’t,” Zogby says. “And when our guys give money they give $1,000, when their guys give money they give $100,000. It makes all the difference in the world. They know yearly how they will survive and what they can do and make plans to grow their institutions and we’re struggling to stay alive every year. Our biggest problem is keeping our doors open. Our annual budget is $2.2m and we have to struggle to make that.”
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