Arab Voices: Listening and Moving Beyond Myths

After decades spent trying to better explain the Arab World to other Americans, all too often I have found myself running up against the same mythologies and half-truths that, year after year, stubbornly maintain an alarming ability to shape thinking about the region.

One of the reasons I wrote "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters" was to challenge these myths head on. Unlike so many other books or articles that have been written about this region, "Arab Voices" is neither a retelling (or an interpretation) of history, nor is it a collection of personal anecdotes. These approaches can be useful, and there are excellent examples that have made real contributions to our understanding. But they are also susceptible to bias or to what I call "bad science" – as in the case of writers with a penchant for elevating an observation or a conversation into a generalized conclusion (the musings of Tom Friedman comes to mind).

My starting point is hard data, derived from more than a decade of polling Zogby International has conducted across the Middle East. Where I use personal anecdotes, it is to "put flesh on the bones" of the numbers in order to help tell the stories of those Arabs whose realities we must understand.

I love polling (and not merely because my brother John is the business). Polling opens a window and lets in voices we seldom hear. When we ask 4,000 Arabs from Morocco to the United Arab Emirates to tell us their attitudes toward the United States, to identify their most important political concerns, their attitudes toward women in the workplace, or what programs they watch on television – and when we organize their responses by country, and then by age or gender or class, and then listen to what they are saying – we are able pierce through the fog of myth and learn.

And learning is important, because for too long our understanding of this region and its peoples have been clouded by distorted stereotypes and myths. They have dominated our thinking and, in some cases, have shaped our policies. I look at each of these myths in "Arab Voices" and then contrast the assumptions and misperceptions behind them with polling data that reveal what Arabs really think.

The five myths I examine are:

1) Are Arabs all the same and can they, therefore, be reduced to a "type"(as in “all Arabs are this or that”)? Reading the broad generalizations and crude caricatures of Arabs found in Raphael Patai’s "Arab Mind" (used as a training manual by the U.S. military in Iraq) or Tom Friedman’s "Mid East Rules to Live By" might lead one to think so. But our polling reveals a very different view. What we find when we survey public opinion is a rich and varied landscape across the Arab World that defies stereotype. Not only are there diverse sub-cultures and unique histories that give texture to life, making Egyptians different than Saudis or Lebanese, there are also generational differences. For example, younger Arabs (who are 60% of the population of this region) are caught up with globalization and change. They share different concerns and aspire to different goals than their parents. They are more open to gender equality and are less tied to tradition.

2) Are Arabs so diverse that they do not constitute a world at all? That’s what "The Economist" would have us believe. In a special 2009 issue of this magazine, the editors described the region as "a big amorphous thing and arguably not a thing at all". Once again, our polling reveals quite the opposite. Across the region, Arabs do identify as "Arabs" and they describe themselves as tied to one another by a common language (and the common history that implies) and shared political concerns, with majorities of all generations and in all countries demonstrating a strong attachment to Palestine and the fate of the Iraqi people.

3) Are Arabs all angry, hating us, "our values" and "our way of life"? In a recent poll, we found this view to be shared by a plurality of Americans. But our work in the Arab World finds quite the opposite to be true. Arabs like the American people, and they not only respect our education and our advances in science and technology, they also like our values of "freedom and democracy". What they don’t like are our policies toward them, which lead them to believe that we don’t like them. As one Arab businessman said to me, "we feel like jilted lovers".

4) Are Arabs driven by religious fanaticism? Arabs are, like many in the West, "people of faith", with their values shaped by their religious traditions. But mosque attendance rates across the Middle East are about the same as church attendance rates here in the U.S. And when we ask Arabs what programs they prefer to watch on TV, the list is as varied as those favored by American viewers. In Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia (the largest countries covered in our polls) the top rated programs are movies and soap operas. Religious programs are near the bottom of the list. And when we ask Arabs to list their most important concerns, not surprisingly, the top two are the quality of their work and their families.

So in contrast to the mythic notion that "Arabs go to bed at night hating America, wake up hating Israel, and spend their days either watching news or listening to preachers who fuel that anger", the reality is that "Arabs go to bed each night thinking about their jobs, wake up each morning thinking about their kids, and spend each day thinking about how to improve the quality of their lives".

5) Lastly there is the myth that Arabs reject reform and will not change, unless the West pushes them. This has been a fundamental tenet of the neo-conservatives. Derived from the writings of Bernard Lewis, this myth provided one of the rationales for the Iraq war – the idea being that we would destroy the "old regime" giving birth to "the new Middle East".

What our polling shows, however, is that Arabs do want reform, but the reform they want is theirs, not ours. Their top domestic priorities are: better jobs, improved health care and expanded educational opportunities (sound familiar?). Our findings further demonstrate that most Arabs do not want us meddling in their internal affairs, but they would welcome our assistance in helping their societies build capacity to provide services and improve the quality of their lives.

When we look at the Arab World more closely and listen to Arabs more carefully, we learn that this region and its people are not as they have been imagined by Hollywood or projected by political ideologues with an axe to grind. They can not be reduced to the mythic stereotypes that have so warped our understanding and contributed to distorting our policies. With this realization will come the ability to engage productively with the people of this region which has become so critical to our national interests.