What do Arabs think about?

James Zogby’s Column

To the anti-Arab polemicists of the world, the answer is simple: the Arabs are driven by their hatred of Israel and the West. Three decades ago, Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, captured the racism and perverse self-absorption inherent in this view when she observed that she pitied the Arabs because while Israelis had fun, enjoyed life and created art and music, all the Arabs did was hate and make war.

The tragedy, of course, is that after decades of anti-Arab public relations propaganda this racist view of the Arab world has taken hold. When we have conducted focus groups in the United States ordinary Americans often ask the question about the Arabs, “Are they like us?”. What they are saying is that when they think of an Arab all that comes to mind is a one-dimensional character-the “other side” of the Arab-Israeli conflict-devoid of personality and complex emotions.

Unfortunately that image is sometimes reinforced when Arabs, themselves, fail to put “flesh on the bones” of their own personalities. The fabricated notion that Arabs are sitting home all day watching 24-hour Arabic satellite news broadcasts against Israel and America is neither true nor helpful in projecting a real image of the Arabs, that expresses the full range of their thoughts and concerns.

And so I return to my question, “What do Arabs think about?”

In April and May 2002, the Arab Thought Foundation commissioned an eight country poll of Arab public opinion to learn the answer to that question. Teams working with Zogby International interviewed 3,800 Arab adults in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The results were released last week in Cairo at the first conference of the Arab Thought Foundation.

What we found in our study was that Arabs, not unlike people all over the world, are focused on matters close to home. When we asked our respondents what mattered most to them in their own lives, they identified: the quality of their work, family, religion, and job security. They gave their lowest ratings to “external matters” like political issues, foreign policy issues, and leisure time.

Our respondents, it appears, are focused principally on issues related to their personal security, fulfillment and well being. What matters most are the things that effect them most directly: the quality and security of their daily work, their faith and their family. The ability to lead a meaningful and productive life, the ability to provide for those whom they love and the ability to protect and project the values they hold most dear-these are the concerns that define life and matter most.

In the same vein, when we asked our 3,800 respondents to choose from a list of one dozen values, those they felt were most important to teach their children, once again the choices they made focused on personal and family concerns. Far less emphasis was given to “externals”. The most important values selected were: self-respect, good health, hygiene, personal responsibility, respect for elders, and working to achieve a better life. At the bottom of the list were teaching creativity, tolerance for views of others and respect for authority.

In other words, like people everywhere, when projecting values to their children, Arabs want them to be secure, responsible, healthy and prosperous.

All of this translates into politics. When we asked our respondents to rank, in order or priority, their top political concerns, once again, the overall focus appears to be on matters that affect personal and family life-but with an intriguing twist.

Civil and personal rights were consistently noted as the most important issues, followed by health care. Also in the top group of political concerns were “my personal economic situation” and concern over moral standards. But ranked slightly higher than both of these last two issues were concerns with Palestine and “the rights of the Palestinian people.” (see Table I)

After more than three generations of conflict, the betrayal and the denial of Palestinian rights, this issue of Palestine appears to have become a defining one of general Arab concern. It is not seen in the same way as “the general Arab situation,” nor does it appear to be viewed as an issue of foreign policy as in “relations with non-Arab countries.” Rather, for our respondents, the situation of the Palestinians appears to have become a personal matter lumped together in a basket of other issues like civil rights and health care and ahead of more general concerns like moral standards or the state of their country’s economy.

But note in Table 1. the interesting variations in rankings that occur among respondents from the eight countries. While the overall top group of political issues chosen by our respondents differs only slightly from country to country, a look at the areas where different priority choices do appear can reveal some interesting results.

In Lebanon, for example, in addition to the health care and the matter of civil and personal rights, a high priority ranking is given by the respondents to their personal economic situation. The Lebanese also rank issues of moral standards and the economic health of their country at the top. On the other hand, the Lebanese, who, in our other polling do show concern for Palestinian rights, in this study, rank this concern far below the others in its priority ranking.

Somewhat the same is the true in Kuwait, where the issues of Palestine and the rights of the Palestine people, while valued, rank only fifth and seventh in order of priority.

Conversely, in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the issues of Palestine and the rights of the Palestinian people are given the two highest ratings among respondents in both countries.

The only other significant differences in priority ranking that bear mentioning occur in Kuwait, Egypt and among Arabs in Israel, who all appear to share a deeper concern for contemporary moral standards than do respondents in other countries. For Kuwaitis, the matter of moral standards is the highest-ranking political issue, tied with health care, with the question of civil and political rights following by only a percentage point. In Egypt and among the Arabs in Israel, the matter of moral standards is the third highest rated issue.

Finally we polled over 3,800 respondents about their non-work related activities, and found that a significant percentage were involved in religious activities and charity work, next came involvement in sports and political affairs and current events. The major exception to that overall Arab pattern occurred in Jordan and Morocco where involvement in sports received a much higher score, and in Kuwait and Egypt where involvement in local politics received scores higher than elsewhere in the Arab world.

The portrait that emerges from this study “What Arabs Think” is of an Arab world more complex and diverse in its attitudes than many in the West understand it to be. While this Arab Thought Foundation study was designed to promote deeper Arab understanding and discussion, it is clear that the results of the work will also be useful in shattering the myth of the one-dimensional Arab.

We can tell Golda Meir’s latter day disciples to get over their self absorption. What do Arabs think about? Like people everywhere they go to bed at night thinking about their children and wake up worrying about their jobs. When they think about Israel at all, it is because they feel the pain it has inflicted on their people who, if it were not for Israel’s behavior, would be able to live free and prosper, and able to worry about things unrelated to Israel and what it is doing to them.

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