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America and Arab Spring: One Man’s View

James Zogby speaking on American perceptions of the Arab world and his book on the subject at a gathering in Washington, DC, May 10, 2011

James Zogby, author and Arab American activist, says American perceptions of the Arab world are still flawed.

How has the so-called “Arab Spring” changed the way Americans perceive people of the Middle East and North Africa? What about how people in that region look at the United States? American author and activist James Zogby says change is needed in both camps and cautions that many Americans still don’t understand the region.

Zogby, a son of Lebanese immigrants who is also the head of the Arab American Institute, has addressed some of the existing mutual misgivings in his book: Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters. But so much has changed in the Arab world since his book came out last October that he is writing an epilogue for the paperback version.

Unchanged perceptions

He discussed both his book and the recent Arab uprisings at an informal gathering this week in Washington, D.C., maintaining that much of what he wrote in his book’s first edition still remains true today.

“My sense is that we haven’t changed to a great degree here [in the United States], either in our understanding of the region or even of the need to close the growing gap. To the extent, in other words, that perceptions about the Arabs are based on this received knowledge or are derivative of other factors, we still haven’t changed all that much.”

Zogby seprately said that Arab leaders are listening to their people more than before, and American leaders need to be sensitive to that change. The author said that even support for a no-fly zone over Libya was not a ringing endorsement of U.S. policy in the region, and the United States should not think it was.

“The kind of behaviors of simply ratifying what America does that occurred in the past, that’s not going to be as easily forthcoming anymore. Libya is an exception in large measure because Libya is Libya. And Gadhafi is somebody who alienated just about everybody, and so, frankly as an embarrassment people were willing to take advantage of any opportunity to get rid of him.”

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden

The author gave credit to President Obama’s handling of the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALS in Pakistan. He said the president’s reserved demeanor was more appropriate than what he called the drunken frat party atmosphere that broke out near the White House and in New York on May 2.

But Zogby added that even the Obama administration didn’t get everything right by giving different versions of bin Laden’s death in the first hours after the assault.

“I think the aides that botched [the story] really dealt a blow to credibility that was already at risk in the region. There’s a distrust for us and that’s unfortunate that we didn’t get the story right and an event as momentous as this ended up not providing closure in the region but rather opening up the door to more conspiracy theories and more questions about what we did.”

The Damascus-based leader of Hamas Khaled Mashaal, right, gives a speech as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, sits next to Egypt's intelligence chief Murad Mewafi, 2nd left, during the reconciliation meeting in Cairo, Egypt, May 4, 2011
The Damascus-based leader of Hamas Khaled Mashaal, right, gives a speech as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, sits next to Egypt's intelligence chief Murad Mewafi, 2nd left, during the reconciliation meeting in Cairo, Egypt, May 4, 2011

Palestinian reconciliation

During his talk, James Zogby told the gathering that the recent Palestinian reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas are a step in the right direction, if the agreement is implemented properly. But he cautioned that Americans need to realize the central role the Palestinian issue plays in many Arab minds, causing similar reactions to the ones felt by American Jews during the Holocaust.

Zogby said that even Wael Ghonim - an Egyptian Google executive who became an international figure after police detained him in February - has said he wants to “do something” to help promote reforms for Palestine.

Zogby called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Palestinians could choose either reconciliation or peace with Israel a false choice because Palestinians need both [reconciliation and peace].

But James Zogby sees reasons for hope. He says the central role the Internet and free sharing of information played in revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will help change many people’s perceptions. He added that the increasing number of U.S. college students who are focusing on Middle East studies and learning Arabic is another reason for optimism.

The author called President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo two years ago a roadmap for American leaders. But Zogby cautioned that much work is needed if the United States wants to deliver on the promises of Obama’s speech.

News reports this week said that President Obama is planning to renew Muslim outreach in the coming days, in order to appeal to the Muslim world after the death of Osama bin Laden. A senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal that the President will argue that the Muslim world is at a crossroads, with bin Laden representing the old way and the democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere representing the future. James Zogby has argued that America is also at a crossroads - whether to stick to old models of dealing with Middle East or to embrace new thinking.

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