Posted by on November 07, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

At the 23rd Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference last week, Dr. James Zogby spoke in a regional perspectives panel.

To begin his talk, Zogby enlisted recent AAI polling data to demonstrate that Arabs and Americans share similar values and priorities.

What do Arabs want?

For the most part, polling numbers from the past six years reveal that Arabs want almost nothing from the United States except for its aid in building capacity. AAI Poll Participants in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab-Emirates ranked health care, employment, and education among the top five most important issues facing their respective countries. And Arabs want the United States to help bolster these sectors.

What do Arabs not want?

Arabs are not interested in receiving political advice from the U.S.

In the five years following President Obama’s historic Cairo speech, Arabs have grown more skeptical of U.S. interests. They believe that the Obama administration failed to translate the Cairo speech’s positive rhetoric into reality, as his endorsement of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was ultimately stalled in congress. This incident took a toll on Arab trust of the U.S., and recent AAI polling shows that Arabs in Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, KSA, and UAE overwhelmingly believe that the U.S. has not acted even-handedly in the negotiations between Palestine and Israel.

In addition, Zogby criticized the notion that anti-Americanism has flourished in the Arab world, and he condemned the U.S.’s inclination to advocate for a democratic transformation of the region on their terms.

“The Arab world does not want democracy-building advice from the United States,” said Zogby, “The Arab world wants the U.S. giving democracy building-advice like the U.S. wants the Brits giving it gun control advice, or Sweden giving it health care advice.”

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the event occurred during the question-and-answer portion. Dr. Zogby provided a compelling counterargument to statements made by fellow speaker Judith Kipper, the Director of Middle East Programs at the Institute of World Affairs.

The following questions were posed to the panelists: “In regards to the U.S. administration, is America prepared to fight ISIL in the long run? Secondly, do you think that the Arabs have the stomach for soul searching in the region, and are they willing to admit mistakes that they’ve made in the region?"

Kipper was the first to respond, stating, “The American commitment to fight ISIL is very serious, and the real question is, ‘What are the Arabs prepared to do?’”

She urged, “It’s up to the Arab countries to find a solution to ISIS … The U.S. cannot develop the Arab world. You have 60% of 300 million people under the age of 20. Every one of them is a prospective candidate for extremism.”

After making these statements, Kipper decided to put forth and respond to a new question about democracy in the Arab world:

“I know somebody wanted to ask me and I’ll finish with this, about will democracy work and will it solve the Arab world’s problems. I don’t think I ever said the word ‘democracy.’ The Arab world is very, very, very far from democracy. But there are different ways to have participation so people feel they have a voice in their own society and civil society; because civil society produces tolerance, and there is zero tolerance in the Arab world. And that is all part of development. We’ve gone through it, every other country in the world has gone through it, and the Arabs are now going to have to face the dilemma of how do you get people, young people, the youth bulge, a stake in their own societies.”

Zogby fired back, stating that Kipper’s response was over-the-top.

He criticized the notion that every person under the age of 20 in an Arab country is a prospective candidate for ISIS. Zogby said that there are specific causes as to why the movement has come into being and that they cannot all be traced back to the Arab world.

Muslims have felt alienated in Europe and in countries around the world where they have settled, only to find themselves as permanent outsiders. And these realities have ultimately helped to build this movement.

“You can’t put it all on Arab countries,” Zogby said.

AAI applauds Dr. Zogby for calling out Kipper’s claim that there is “zero tolerance in the Arab world.” By doing so, Zogby demonstrated the dangers of using sweeping generalizations to discuss Arab countries. His words prompted the audience to observe extremism in the region through a lens that resists ethnocentrism.

Watch the hour-long panel here.

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