First Published: 2017-03-15

Mythology and Reality in US-Arab Perceptions
The problematic contrast between how Arabs see themselves and how they are generally perceived in the US public sphere of media and politics jolted me again this week, argues Rami G. Khouri.
Middle East Online

NEW YORK — The problematic contrast between how Arabs see themselves and how they are generally perceived in the U.S. public sphere of media and politics jolted me again this week, as I followed American mainstream mass media that mostly mentions Arab countries in the context of war, terrorism, refugees, collapsing states, or security threats. I simultaneously read through the results of the new Arab Opinion Index poll published by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies that provided multiple insights into the actual identities, values, and policy views of Arabs across our region. The contrast between the Arab reality and its perception in the U.S. was stark, and troubling.

The latest poll (the fifth since 2011) interviewed 18,310 individuals in 12 Arab countries, with an overall margin of error of +/- 2 percent. Several significant findings deserve greater appreciation in the U.S. and other Western lands that still largely deal with an imagined, rather than the actual, Arab world.

Arab citizens’ attitudes towards the “Islamic State” (ISIS) indicate that religiosity does not play as big a role in people’s actions as often perceived abroad. Eighty-nine percent of respondents opposed ISIS, while just 2 percent had a “very positive” and 3 percent had a “positive to some extent” view of ISIS. This reconfirms the overwhelming rejection of ISIS in Arab societies, though it is also worrying that 5 percent, or 20 million Arabs, had positive views of it.

More interestingly, Arab views of ISIS are not correlated with religiosity, the survey found, as positive and negative views were expressed equally frequently by people who self-identify as “very religious,” “religious” and “not religious.” Other questions on individual religiosity, views of ISIS, and the role of religion in public life indicate that attitudes towards ISIS are defined by political considerations, rather than by religious beliefs.

While the prevalent preference among Americans to deal with ISIS seems to be ongoing military action or promoting “moderate Islam,” just seventeen percent of Arabs suggest military action as their first option. The other first options among the majority of respondents included “ending foreign intervention,” “supporting Arab democratic transition,” “resolving the Palestinian cause,” and ending the Syrian conflict in a manner which meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

In other words, the survey analysts said, “In broad terms, the Arab public supports taking a comprehensive set of political, economic, social and military measures to confront terrorism.”

The Arab focus on political factors that exacerbate many of our problems was also reflected in increasing public disenchantment with the policies of Arab and foreign powers towards Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Strong majorities negatively viewed the foreign policies of Russia, Iran, and the United States (from 66 to 75 percent). Arabs widely also saw the United States as the greatest single threat to collective Arab security — 67 percent of Arabs said both the U.S. or Israel pose the greatest threat to collective Arab security (ten percent said Iran). Majorities of Arabs (from 59 to 89 percent) saw Israel, the United States, Russia, Iran, and France as threatening the region’s stability.

It was fascinating to see that while the U.S government and Israel are seeking a mythological alliance of Arabs and Israel against Iran, the survey found that the overwhelming majority of Arabs (86 percent) reject official recognition of Israel by their governments. This reflected widespread perceptions of Israel’s colonialist policies towards the Palestinians and its expansionist threat to other Arab countries. Dr. Mohammad Almasri, Coordinator of the Arab Opinion Index, explained this Arab animosity towards Israel as reflecting political actions, rather than being framed in cultural or religious terms.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the poll was about the material condition of Arab families, and their views of the biggest problems they faced. The single most pressing problem facing respondents’ country was economic conditions (44 percent), followed by priorities related to governmental performance (20 percent), the stalled democratic transition, deficiencies in public services, and the spread of financial and administrative corruption.

Not surprisingly, the survey also identified widespread and total lack of satisfaction with people’s financial circumstances. Nearly half (49 percent) said their household incomes were sufficient to cover necessary expenditures, but they could not make any savings (designated as living “in hardship”). Another 29 percent of Arab citizens cannot cover their basic family expenses, and thus live “in need.”

In other words, nearly 4 out of 5 Arabs live in precarious family situations where they do not have enough money, savings, or social safety net mechanisms to handle critical human needs in daily life or in an emergency.

These findings cry out for a better grasp of the linkages between this crushing and precarious reality at family level, the sustained autocratic and increasingly incompetent policies of Arab governments that are supported by foreign powers, and the impacts of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war-making politics of regional Arab and non-Arab powers — precisely the biggest issues for ordinary Arabs that almost never appear in the U.S. public sphere.

(The survey results are available on-line at http://english.dohainstitute.org/file/Get/d3e8a41a-661d-44f0-9e02-6d237cb91869)

Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School, and can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

 

Iraq investigates Mosul civilian deaths

Iran to symbolically sanction 15 US companies

Syria fighting damages IS-held dam posing rising water risk

Yemeni rebel supporters flood streets on conflict’s anniversary

Cities, monuments dim lights for Earth Hour

In Algeria, everyone wants to be MP, few likely to vote

Iran to appeal seizure of 9/11 compensation money

Hamas shuts Gaza crossing after assassination of official

Deep concern as Israeli laws entrench the occupation

Turkey’s Kurds could sway tight referendum vote

Al-Qaeda, on the rise again, hits Assad where it hurts

US and allies talk of post-ISIS future, but have no plan

Israel’s air strike on Syria spooks Middle East

Gunmen kill Hamas official in Gaza

Separate Syria air strikes kill at least 32

UN says Israel has ignored resolution on illegal settlements

Veteran politician says Turkey referendum a 'test' for Kurds

More Algerian women in work, but husbands control wages

Beirut university settles US lawsuit over Hezbollah

1.1 million weekend travellers from Dubai hit by laptop ban

Shiite Lebanese women endure painful custody battles

Russia, China seek Iraq chemical weapons probe

Besieged Syrians struggle with dwindling dialysis supplies

Syria army retakes Damascus areas from rebels

Syria says peace talks must first focus on 'terrorism'

12 Syrian refugees dead after boat sinks off Turkey coast

Mosul displaced head into unknown

As war keeps them away, Yemen children dream of school

Ousted Egyptian president Mubarak freed from detention

Iraq's Sadr threatens boycott if election law unchanged

Israel, US fail to reach settlement agreement

Yemen rebel missile kills Saudi soldier

Turkish FM in Switzerland amid rising tensions with Europe

Two more 'significant arrests' over London attack

Britain arrests eight as IS claims Westminster attack

Man attempts to drive into crowd of shoppers in Belgium’s Antwerp

Palestinian FA chief says ball in Israel's court

Israel arrests Jewish teen over anti-Semitic terror threats

An Egypt court is to reopen a corruption probe into Mubarak

Bahrain frees award-winning AFP photographer

Erdogan slams 'pressure' on Turks in Bulgaria ahead of vote

Israel policeman suspended after caught on video beating Palestinian

Turkey summons Russia envoy over soldier death in Syria

Bahrain sentences three to death for police bombings

UN-backed Syria talks restart in Geneva