“It’s the Policy, Stupid!”

James Zogby’s Column

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, front page headlines and news magazine cover stories in America asked “why do they hate us?” Pundits and scholars across the ideological spectrum offered answers that ranged from the serious to the silly.  Some suggested that the behavior of the attackers was not aberrant, but characteristic of Islam and its followers. They suggested that the West and Islam are not only different, but are inevitably headed toward a clash. Others suggested that “they” hate our democratic values, our superpower status, our wealth, and our people. Still others noted that it was our policy of unquestioning support for Israel, our denial of Palestinian rights, and our collaboration with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that was behind “their” alienation from “us”.

Little effort, however, was made to conduct the kind of opinion research that is done in the United States and West to probe more deeply into the perceptions and worldview of the Arabs and Muslim people.  It was not surprising, therefore, that when in February the Gallup organization released its poll of Muslim and Arab attitudes, it generated significant national press attention.  Because the study appeared to be skewed by a pre-poll bias and because the presentation of its results were sensationalized, the U.S. press accounts focused on a negative portrait of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

In recent weeks the Gallup poll has been criticized for sensationalizing its results, and for aggregating results in a misleading and inaccurate way.  In the end, the Gallup study raised more questions than it answered.  And so it was in this context that Zogby International launched its own poll of Arab and Muslim countries.  Our objectives were simple:

to determine how adults in Arab and Muslim/non-Arab countries really feel about specific items relative to the American people and culture, and

to ascertain whether or not these adults differentiate between their feelings toward the American people and culture, on one side, and American policy in the Middle East region.

In short, we sought to discover what “they” really do think of the United States and the various manifestations of America that impact their lives.

Our methodology was simple. We conducted face-to-face interviews in five Arab nations – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Face-to-face interviews were also conducted in three non-Arab Muslim nations – Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia.

To establish a proper context for our results, we also conducted face-to-face interviews in France and Venezuela.

Our poll was specifically designed to learn about attitudes, not toward “America-in-general”, as was the case in the Gallup study, but on the many different ways America manifests itself in the world and interacts with the world’s people.

If we grant the conventional wisdom, somewhat expressed in the Gallup poll, that “America” is viewed unfavorably, the question we sought to answer was what factors, if any, drive this unfavorable attitude.

We presented our results at a press conference on April 11, 2002.  When I was asked by a reporter to summarize our results as to why Arabs and Muslims are alienated from America, I responded, “It’s the policy, stupid.”

Here’s what we found:  (for purposes of this article, I will focus on just the results from the five Arab countries included in our survey: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Lebanon).     

In all five Arab countries, those polled have a high regard for American science and technology.  In most instances, the majorities who are positive are overwhelming, ranging from 86% favorable to 12% unfavorable in Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia’s 71% to 26% ratio.

Majorities in all countries are also favorably inclined toward America’s democracy and freedom, ranging from Kuwait’s 58% favorable to 39% unfavorable, to 50% to 44% in UAE.

American movies and television are well received by majorities in all countries. The highest approved ratings were found in UAE and Lebanon (64% each).

 American-made products are viewed favorably by majorities in all five Arab states with Lebanon (72% favorable to 25% unfavorable) and UAE (68% to 27%) leading.  While over 50% are favorable in the other three countries, there are substantial minorities who are unfavorable in Egypt (45%), Saudi Arabia (44%), and Kuwait (39%).

American education receives high grades in all countries (especially Lebanon, 81% and UAE, 79%).  In every Arab country, the youngest polled are most enthusiastic about American education. Those with the highest percentages of Internet access are most positive in all the countries.

Incredibly low marks are given everywhere for United States policy toward the Arab nations and toward the Palestinians. The United States is only given single-digit favorable ratings on its dealings with the Arab nations by every Arab nation (except UAE where it is 15%, driven mostly by the large numbers of non-U.A.E. citizens included in the poll).  In all countries, more than nine out of ten are unfavorable. 

On U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, the numbers are even lower. Notably, the negative ratings are at least nine out of ten in every Arab nation.

In every country, the “Palestinian issue” is viewed as “the most” or “a very important” issue facing the Arab world today.  The range on this is from two in three in Saudi Arabia up to four in five in Lebanon and Egypt.

Those polled in every country indicate that they would overwhelmingly react more favorably toward the U.S. if it “were to apply pressure to ensure the creation of an independent Palestinian state”.   This includes 69% in Egypt, 79% in Saudi Arabia, 87% in Kuwait (91% of Kuwaiti nationals), 59% in Lebanon, and 67% in UAE (76% of Emiratis).

Almost every Kuwaiti national (98%) says that they supported the “American-led effort to free Kuwait”. But the consensus ends there.  It drops to 69% among non-citizens living in Kuwait.

If the U.S. is looking for support in the war against terrorism, it will find it hard to come by in the Arab street. There is no majority support in any of the Arab countries.

Significant differences appear among age groups and levels of Internet access and access to satellite TV.  In every Arab country polled, the youngest groups (18-29 years of age) are substantially more positive to American products, people and values than the other age groups. Indeed, youth appears to be a factor as negativity grows with age. The same holds true for those with satellite TV and Internet access in the Arab countries- those with it are most positive toward American freedom and democracy, American movies and television, American-made products, and American education. The same cannot be said for those polled in the non-Arab countries.

There was no observable gender gap in any of the countries polled.

Our conclusion: “America” is not hated.  In fact, many things about America are viewed favorably.  It’s only American policy that creates negative attitudes among Arabs and Muslims.  It’s the policy, stupid.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.