Posted on October 28, 2002 in Washington Watch

During the past year there has been an unprecedented interest in the Arab world. Many in the West, profoundly shaken by the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, began to look more closely at the Middle East, a region, about which they only had limited knowledge. Books and articles were written, television documentaries were aired, even Congressional hearings were convened.

All too often, however, Arabs were absent from these discussions and presentations. As a result, instead of closing the gap, the bad or biased information produced by those efforts only served to deepen misunderstanding.

Even when some Arabs have made an effort to engage in and inform this discussion they all too often have missed the point. These Arab information campaigns focused largely on policy matters, when what we have learned from our polling of U.S. opinion, is that Americans do not want to know where Arabs stand on issues, they want to know who Arabs really are – what they believe and how they think. As one U.S. respondent said to us in a focus group discussion we had organized, “Are Arabs like us?”

Of course this discussion in the West did not stand alone. In the Arab world, Arabs were asking similar questions about Americans. Clearly the tragedy of September 11 had awakened both sides to an awareness of the profound gap in understanding that divided both worlds. But Arabs were engaged in another discussion as well. In salons and majlises, in public forums and in private, Arabs were taking a hard look at their own society and their needs.

One such effort at critical self-examination was the Arab Human Development Report 2002 (AHDR 2002) produced by the United Nations Development Program and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The report was an independent look at contemporary Arab economic, social and cultural realities. It was both thorough and incisive. And while the report recognizes the significant advances in human development that the Arab world has made in the past 50 years, it also points out the extraordinary needs that continue to exist and that have not been addressed adequately.

What is important is that the report was written by Arabs, for Arabs and it has been acclaimed by Arabs. The AHDR 2002 is seen by many not as a catalog of problems, but as a useful road map to future progress.

The AHDR 2002 largely was based on macro-economic, -social and -cultural measurements. Earlier this year a group of us embarked on a very different type of inquiry–a survey of Arab public opinion. This week I’ll be in Cairo at the conference of the Arab Thought Foundation to release the findings of the study, “What Arabs Think: Values, Beliefs and Concerns.”

Commissioned by the Arab Thought Foundation and conducted by Zogby International, “What Arabs Think” analyzes the views of 3,800 Arab adults in eight counties (Morocco, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Arabs in Israel). It represents a landmark, probing look at Arab public opinion.

Public opinion polling is new in the Arab world. For years American political leaders and commentators have spoken of the “Arab street,” but done so with derision. In polling we do not address a “faceless street,” rather we speak to real people with diverse opinions. They are interviewed. Their opinions are respected, reported and analyzed. The results are presented in percentages giving both the majority and minority viewpoints.

“What Arabs Think” is different than other recent polls that have been conducted in the region. Most of these have been focused externally. They have been designed to answer questions about what Arabs think about the United States, or critical political events in the world or the region.

“What Arabs Think” does not look outward. Its focus is inward. It is an effort to learn what Arabs believe, what their concerns are, what values they seek to teach their children and what political issues matter most to them. It also examines how Arabs identify themselves and how they view their own countries and other nations in the world.

The study was designed with two audiences in mind. For Americans it was intended to answer questions about who Arabs are–to create a fuller picture of Arab values and beliefs of Arabs as real people. Although the study has only been given a limited release in the United States, it has already created discussion on television, in congressional hearings, think tanks and at universities. After the formal release of the book in Cairo, this U.S. discussion will increase.

At the same time it is hoped that the study will promote discussion and further inquiry in the Arab world about matters of values, political concerns and identity. To facilitate this discussion, “What Arabs Think” presents its findings by country, so that the views of, for example, Lebanese can be compared with Saudis or Moroccans. Similarly the results in each case are cross-tabulated by age, gender, education level and access to the internet. This provides for a comparison of the views of young and old, men and women, etc. As a result of this process, the views of young Jordanians can be compared with older Jordanians, or the values of Kuwaiti women can be compared with those of Egyptian women, etc.

The data is itself fascinating. We found, for example, the priority values that Arabs prefer to teach to their children. We learned what are the most important political concerns of Arabs in all eight countries. We also learned what Arabs think about 13 other countries in the world, and what they value most about their own countries.

As the introduction to “What Arabs Think” concludes, “polling opens a window–it welcomes opinion and invites debate.” In the weeks to come, this column will present some of the findings of “What Arabs Think.” I thank the Arab Thought Foundation for entrusting me with this landmark effort, and I look forward to a continuing discussion.

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