Posted by Khaleej Times on September 13, 2012 in News Clips
US scholar says survey shows non-Arab Muslims with no direct experience with Arabs have negative thoughts
Much has been made of relations between the West and the Arab world, but American writer and scholar Dr James Zogby recently concluded a study looking at Arabs from a different perspective — that of the non-Arab Muslim world.
Dr Zogby presented the results of this study at a New York University Abu Dhabi event on Wednesday evening, drawing well over a hundred attendees to the public discussion.
“You all being here make me think we caught an interesting topic,” said Dr Zogby, who spent more than half of the session taking questions from the audience. “We have often polled American attitudes towards the Arab world and we have often polled Arab attitudes towards Americans. This was an effort to reach into the broader non-Arab Muslim world and say ‘what do you think about Arabs?’”
The survey was conducted last June, covering a total of 5,000 individuals in Senegal, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey — countries where researchers felt they could “get a handle on the populace” and procure a representative sample, explained Dr Zogby. Interviewees were asked about their views on Arab people, nations, culture and civilization, including questions with restricted answer choices as well as those requiring independent thought.
“Polling for me opens a window; it lets voices in that don’t get heard,” said Dr Zogby. “I call it the respectful science: you talk to people, you listen to what every one of them has to say, you record and then you organise the data and present it back to people. It’s always good to know what people think.” The trick to unlocking people’s thoughts, argues Dr Zogby, lies in asking the right questions.
One of the survey’s first queries, for example, was “What are your attitudes towards Arabs?” With a possible response of either “favourable” or “unfavourable”, a strong majority in each of the five countries professed to have positive views. However, when asked the open-ended question of “What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think of Arabs?”, around a quarter of respondents in three countries (Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey) responded with negative thoughts, such as Arabs being backwards, passive, subservient to the West etc. In Iran, more than half of the interviewees gave negative responses.
“The initial ‘favourable’ was actually pretty soft and masking a whole lot of other negatives that were there,” said Dr Zogby. “It was important to parse it out and get behind the initial positive response.”
Data uncovered through the study is open to interpretation, but certain trends can be clearly traced through the numbers. The survey demonstrates that those who have travelled to Arab countries — in other words, those who have had direct experience with Arabs — tend to have more positive attitudes towards the Arab world. Dr Zogby noted that although two-thirds of Iranians surveyed held unfavourable views of the UAE, almost two-thirds of those who had actually travelled to the UAE (constituting 9 per cent of all interviewees) held favourable views.
“It’s a good thing: if they know you, they like you,” he said. “I would encourage travel and trade because it improves relations and breaks down stereotypes. In an increasingly interdependent world, understanding matters because it’s good for business, for politics, for simply the stability you need to advance.”
When examining rates of travel to the Arab world, Dr Zogby was surprised to find that only 5 per cent of Turkish participants had visited an Arab country — a seeming aberration that caused him to re-poll the country in order to validate the results. Considering Turkey’s proximity to Arab countries and its recent prominence in regional politics, Dr Zogby saw cause for concern.
“It ultimately could spell trouble for Turkey, if its leadership role is thin and not supported either by (outside) people understanding Turkey or Turkey understanding them,” he speculated. “Shared exchanges have to exist for healthy relationships to develop.”
The study revealed a general perception that Turkey was providing leadership in the region, but also the belief that Egypt should be undertaking the role. In fact, Egypt was the only country named by Senegal, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey as an Arab country it would like to have closer ties with.
Dr Zogby also addressed the impact of the Arab Spring on non-Arab Muslims attitudes. When asked about the first thing that comes to mind in association with Arabs, roughly a quarter of respondents in three countries (Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey) mentioned the recent revolts in the Middle East, most notably in Egypt.
At the opening of the talk, Dr Zogby paid homage to the US Ambassador who was killed in Libya on Tuesday.
“Ambassador Chris Stevens was a decent and brilliant public servant,” he said. “I don’t want to dwell on it other than to make myself clear as an American and someone who cares about the Arab world, this was wrong and should not have happened.”
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