Posted on November 02, 2010 in Arab Voices

Zogby, James. Arab Voices: what they are saying to us, and why it matters

Editors' Picks. Choice, v.48, no. 09, (May 2011)

Arab Voices

by Hafez Al Mirazi - The Cairo Review of Global Affairs (April, 2011)

Communication Breakdown

by The Majalla (March, 2011)

Of Many Things

by Drew Christiansen, S.J. - America (November, 2010)

Failure to Communicate

by Neil MacFarquhar - The New York Times (November 26, 2010)

Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters

by L. Carl Brown - Foreign Affairs (November/ December, 2010)

What Do Arab Americans Really Think

by Mike Nally - The Independent Monitor (November, 2010)

LISTEN

by Hugo S. Moreno - Forbes Magazine (November 2, 2010)

James Zogby, an Arab American of Lebanese descent, is well known in the Middle East as a newspaper columnist and for his weekly show Viewpoint With James Zogby on Abu Dhabi Television. He is the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute and a senior analyst with his brother John’s polling firm, Zogby International. As co-president of Builders for Peace, he promoted business investment by Arab Americans in the West Bank and Gaza, and in 1994 he chaired a forum on the Palestinian economy at the Casablanca Economic Summit. He has continued to work with U.S. government agencies to support Palestinian economic development.

Zogby International, one of the best-known U.S. pollsters, conducts opinion surveys and focus groups in more than 70 countries and consults for business, governments and political groups. It gained renown for calling the 1996 U.S. presidential race within a tenth of a point, and also correctly polled the narrow nail-biter victory of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. James Zogby has written several poll-based books, including 2002’s What Arabs Think.  

His new book, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters (Palgrave MacMillan), continues the central quest of his professional life: building bridges between the Arab world and the West and, in particular, promoting greater understanding of Arabs in the U.S. Thus, its primary audience consists of Americans, and much of what he has to say will strike Arabs as obvious or simple common sense. Yet common sense is all too uncommon, especially in Washington, D.C.’s halls of power and the partisan echo chambers of much American media. There are enlightening nuggets here even for Arab readers, and the book has one great advantage: With insights and information based on years of scientific polling in the Arab world by Zogby International, it cannot simply be dismissed as one man’s opinion or ideological posturing.

In 2002, working with the Arab Thought Foundation, Zogby International conducted the first in-depth poll of Arab public opinion since the King-Crane report of 1919, polling in eight countries selected for their diversity of experience: Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and the Arab citizens of Israel. In the years since, while surveying others from time to time, Zogby International has followed up with an annual survey in six of these countries: Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The results of these polls, as well as some polling data from the U.S., provide a framework for the book, buttressing James Zogby’s observations with solid information on what Arabs actually think.

This underlines the book’s central message, which is simple in concept but clearly difficult to execute: Both sides need to listen to each other, or they will continue talking past each other and behaving in counterproductive ways. Americans, often deeply ignorant of the Middle East and afflicted with a crippling lack of Arabic speakers in key positions, seem to have a tough time truly listening to the concerns of the Arab world before they dictate often irrelevant “solutions” from afar, solutions often based on their own ideological preoccupations or mistaken assumptions.

One example dating back to the mid-1990s: James Zogby tells of meeting an excited young American at a conference who had just been awarded $12 million by the U.S. Agency for International Development to teach entrepreneurial skills to Palestinians. When they learned of this, Palestinian officials and businessmen were surprised and outraged. They had not been consulted, and the money represented a large chunk of the $75 million in USAID money allotted for Palestine. One scoffed at the idea, exclaiming, “We are a nation of entrepreneurs.” What they actually needed, he said, was loans and access to international markets.

In turn, Arabs need to better understand Americans if they are to counteract negative stereotypes, improve their image in the West and succeed in explaining their point of view.

James Zogby structures one major part of the book around what he calls five “super myths” about the Arab world that he sets out to debunk: All Arabs are the same; Arabs vary so much that there is really no such thing as the Arab world; all Arabs are angry radicals; Arabs are obsessed with religion; the Arab world is frozen in the past and incapable of change, at least unless outsiders impose change. Spelled out in this extreme form, these are obvious absurdities, although that doesn’t stop some in U.S. right-wing politics from asserting them.  In the course of combating ugly stereotypes, James Zogby notes the double-edged nature of anti-Semitism: Arabs are Semites too, and the hateful caricatures bear disturbing similarities, from physical features to the “moneybags” image to the imputed “subversiveness.”

While James Zogby does a credible job of dismissing these “super myths,” he also stumbles into some minor pitfalls of his own making.

One is a certain understandable touchiness. After a lifetime spent trying to counter negative perceptions of Arabs, an excess of defensiveness is forgivable. For instance, James Zogby takes issue with Pulitzer Prize-winning  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has written extensively about both globalization and the Middle East, for a series of sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications about the Arab world.  The defensiveness comes into play when Friedman advises that one should never underestimate the role of humiliation in politics. James Zogby interprets this as a claim that Arabs are politically irrational, acting from emotion rather than coolly calculating their national interests. 

In fact, Friedman’s advice is universally applicable as well as valid. What, if not humiliation, was the dominant factor in Germany’s reaction to the Versailles Treaty, which enabled the rise of Hitler and set the stage for World War II? Humiliation has been central to Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as to the 20th-century rise of Japan and China as great powers, not to mention the careers of many demagogues: Venezuela’s  Hugo Chavez comes to mind as one example.

The other main section of Arab Voices explores the blunders and fallout that stem from misunderstanding and ignorance by focusing on five “theaters”: Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and the Arab American community.  Ironically, in a book bolstered by polling data, perhaps the strongest chapters in the book are those on Lebanon and Arab Americans, because here the author has a wealth of personal experience and family history to draw upon. For a reader, the vivid anecdotes and the author’s emotional connection make this material come to life. He quotes a friend, a female doctor in Beirut in 1991, saying, “You Lebanese Americans may be the last people who think of all of Lebanon....Everybody still thinks Lebanon, everybody still talks Lebanon, but the picture they get in their mind is of their party or their region...” And he writes of starting the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the 1970s to advocate for political prisoners and victims of torture, partly because the American chapter of Amnesty International refused to take on these cases. The domestic politics were too radioactive, and Amnesty was afraid of losing support; only its London office handles Palestinians. To Americans unaware of this timidity, this is startling.                  

In the end, James Zogby’s prescriptions for improving the situation are also reasonable and full of common sense. He urges a more relaxed visa policy, an increase in U.S.-Arab exchange programs, and greater use of Arab Americans as policy advisers and in public diplomacy. He stresses the academic need for more programs of Middle Eastern study and more Arabic-language courses. And he is cautiously optimistic that, despite some missteps since his Cairo speech, President Obama is genuinely interested in a new approach to the Middle East.

On balance, Arab Voices is a sane and reasonable call for sanity and reason. One can only hope it has some impact.

 

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Advanced Praise

Here's some of what leading authors and commentators are already saying about Jim's book:

"Jim Zogby has written an essential and enlightening book on Arab opinion. Arab Voices is a must read for anyone who wants to hear true voices from the Arab world." —Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

"Arab Voices is a breakthrough book. Finally, after decades of relentlessly ignorant or bigoted stereotyping of the so-called ‘Arab Mind'-often a form of anti-Semitism against Arabs-by partisans having other agendas, James Zogby responds. He presents the results of intensive polling, within historical, political and cultural contexts, in an engrossing search for accuracy, fairness and truth. Let's see if the slanted press and the wrathful cable-talk radio hosts can tolerate giving this book and its calm author a chance to correct the record." —Ralph Nader

"Arab Voices distills Jim Zogby's lifetime of immersion in a central issue of our times-how can America and the Arab world can find the right path forward? Well-written, provocative, and peppered with vivid anecdotes and surprising data, this is essential reading for anyone seeking to penetrate the myths surrounding the Middle East." -Richard North Patterson

"The need for United States engagement in the Middle East has never been greater, and I believe it is essential that Americans better understand the people and cultures in the region. This book improves our understanding of these diverse communities and provides valuable insight into the lives of Arab Americans." -President Jimmy Carter

"Jim Zogby has written a timely and valuable book on the pressing need for effective public diplomacy toward the broader Middle East. The best definition of public diplomacy is to first listen, understand, and then inform, engage and influence. Zogby explains how this can be done." -Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and founding director, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University

"We don't understand Arabs; they don't understand us. Jim Zogby, at last, helps bridge that gap. Every American policy maker should read this book - and listen to him."-Bill Press, nationally-syndicated talk show host

"Europeans should read this book. Arab attitudes to Europe track their attitudes to America much more than Europeans might like to think. Both are seen through the same prism of Palestinian dispossession. That dispossession is an Arab wound rather than a Muslim one. The security of Europe, even more than that of America, requires us to find a resolution to the differences so lucidly described in this book." -John Bruton, former Prime Minister of Ireland and EU Ambassador to the United States

"Thanks to his experience in the region, Jim Zogby is uniquely positioned to present rarely heard voices from the Arab world. Here, he does just that, shining a bright light on a deeply misunderstood part of the world." -Arianna Huffington

"What will win the hearts and minds of the Middle East? Will it be the appeal of American education, culture and democracy or anger at its intrusion? That debate is alive in Arab Voices, this important new book by James Zogby. Columnists speak of the "Arab street" as if Mideast opinion were carved in stone. James Zogby shows us its vibrance. His book shows how the Arab view of America plunged after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, how it spiked with the election of Barack Obama. Arab Voices reveals that we are being watched and judged year by year not by what we say about democracy but how we practice it. For four decades, we have fought wars in the Mideast, spent billions, lost many American lives. Arab Voices shows that these people are paying rapt attention to us and shifting their opinion accordingly. For those who care about US policy, it's the best information you can have." -Chris Matthews

 

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