NEW YORK — The problematic contrast between how Arabs see themselves and how they are generally perceived in the U.S. public sphere of media and politics jolted me again this week, as I followed American mainstream mass media that mostly mentions Arab countries in the context of war, terrorism, refugees, collapsing states, or security threats. I simultaneously read through the results of the new Arab Opinion Index poll published by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies that provided multiple insights into the actual identities, values, and policy views of Arabs across our region. The contrast between the Arab reality and its perception in the U.S. was stark, and troubling.
The latest poll (the fifth since 2011) interviewed 18,310 individuals in 12 Arab countries, with an overall margin of error of +/- 2 percent. Several significant findings deserve greater appreciation in the U.S. and other Western lands that still largely deal with an imagined, rather than the actual, Arab world.
Arab citizens’ attitudes towards the “Islamic State” (ISIS) indicate that religiosity does not play as big a role in people’s actions as often perceived abroad. Eighty-nine percent of respondents opposed ISIS, while just 2 percent had a “very positive” and 3 percent had a “positive to some extent” view of ISIS. This reconfirms the overwhelming rejection of ISIS in Arab societies, though it is also worrying that 5 percent, or 20 million Arabs, had positive views of it.
More interestingly, Arab views of ISIS are not correlated with religiosity, the survey found, as positive and negative views were expressed equally frequently by people who self-identify as “very religious,” “religious” and “not religious.” Other questions on individual religiosity, views of ISIS, and the role of religion in public life indicate that attitudes towards ISIS are defined by political considerations, rather than by religious beliefs.
While the prevalent preference among Americans to deal with ISIS seems to be ongoing military action or promoting “moderate Islam,” just seventeen percent of Arabs suggest military action as their first option. The other first options among the majority of respondents included “ending foreign intervention,” “supporting Arab democratic transition,” “resolving the Palestinian cause,” and ending the Syrian conflict in a manner which meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
In other words, the survey analysts said, “In broad terms, the Arab public supports taking a comprehensive set of political, economic, social and military measures to confront terrorism.”
The Arab focus on political factors that exacerbate many of our problems was also reflected in increasing public disenchantment with the policies of Arab and foreign powers towards Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Strong majorities negatively viewed the foreign policies of Russia, Iran, and the United States (from 66 to 75 percent). Arabs widely also saw the United States as the greatest single threat to collective Arab security — 67 percent of Arabs said both the U.S. or Israel pose the greatest threat to collective Arab security (ten percent said Iran). Majorities of Arabs (from 59 to 89 percent) saw Israel, the United States, Russia, Iran, and France as threatening the region’s stability.
It was fascinating to see that while the U.S government and Israel are seeking a mythological alliance of Arabs and Israel against Iran, the survey found that the overwhelming majority of Arabs (86 percent) reject official recognition of Israel by their governments. This reflected widespread perceptions of Israel’s colonialist policies towards the Palestinians and its expansionist threat to other Arab countries. Dr. Mohammad Almasri, Coordinator of the Arab Opinion Index, explained this Arab animosity towards Israel as reflecting political actions, rather than being framed in cultural or religious terms.
Perhaps the most troubling finding of the poll was about the material condition of Arab families, and their views of the biggest problems they faced. The single most pressing problem facing respondents’ country was economic conditions (44 percent), followed by priorities related to governmental performance (20 percent), the stalled democratic transition, deficiencies in public services, and the spread of financial and administrative corruption.
Not surprisingly, the survey also identified widespread and total lack of satisfaction with people’s financial circumstances. Nearly half (49 percent) said their household incomes were sufficient to cover necessary expenditures, but they could not make any savings (designated as living “in hardship”). Another 29 percent of Arab citizens cannot cover their basic family expenses, and thus live “in need.”
In other words, nearly 4 out of 5 Arabs live in precarious family situations where they do not have enough money, savings, or social safety net mechanisms to handle critical human needs in daily life or in an emergency.
These findings cry out for a better grasp of the linkages between this crushing and precarious reality at family level, the sustained autocratic and increasingly incompetent policies of Arab governments that are supported by foreign powers, and the impacts of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war-making politics of regional Arab and non-Arab powers — precisely the biggest issues for ordinary Arabs that almost never appear in the U.S. public sphere.
(The survey results are available on-line at http://english.dohainstitute.org/file/Get/d3e8a41a-661d-44f0-9e02-6d237cb91869)
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School, and can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global