The United States has committed more money, troops and resources to the Middle East than to any other part of the world since the Vietnam conflict of the 1960s. Yet Americans know very little about the Arab world, and much of what they know is wrong, according to James Zogby, author of the new book, Arab Voices.
Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute - a non-profit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. - challenges what he sees as five super myths which distort Americans’ perception of Arabs.
The first myth is that Arabs are all the same, while the second holds that there is no "Arab world." His brother John’s polling organization, Zogby International, conducted surveys in six Arab countries from Morocco in the west to the United Arab Emirates in the east. The results reveal a rich and varied landscape, with diverse sub-cultures. However, James Zogby notes, they also show a sense of belonging to a greater Arab world.
"Culture in Morocco is different than culture in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is different than Egypt," he says. "We get a tremendous diversity of opinion about daily life and about uniqueness of one’s own country but at the same time there are these common threads that go throughout the region that are born of a common language and a common sensibility. Arabs can be as diverse as any people on earth but when Iraq was invaded they came together, when Palestine is hurting, they come together and they speak in one language and they feel and they resonate together with certain words that mean something powerful to them."
Zogby blames the American news media for the third myth, which is the false perception that Arabs despise the United States, its values and way of life.
"The notion we have is that they go to bed at night hating America, wake up in the morning hating Israel and during the day, they watch TV news fueling the hatred," he says. "In fact what we find in our polling that their number one concerns are their children, health care and education. They go to bed at night thinking about their jobs like everybody else all over the world and wake up in the morning thinking about their families. And during the day, they are watching TV to be sure, but the number-one rated shows are movies and soap operas and dramas."
Zogby also discounts the fourth myth - the idea that most Arabs are driven by religious fanaticism. According to public opinion surveys conducted across the Middle East over the past decade, mosque attendance rates are around the same as church attendance rates in the U.S. The author suggests this misperception is due to Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs as either terrorists or corrupt oil millionaires.
"Is it fair to have an Arab who is a terrorist? Of course, there are Arab terrorists. There are Arab oil Sheiks who do awful things with their money," he says. "What we are questioning is, if the only black person on TV were a street criminal or the only Jewish person were some shyster businessman, if the only characters in other words were these stereotypes, then that is the image that sticks. The problem is there needs to be at least as many characters or types of characters as there are real images in the Arab world to balance those negatives, so that people go away with the sense that they are really not all that way."
The fifth super myth challenged in Arab Voices is a fundamental one: that Arabs reject reform and will never change unless the West pushes them. Zogby uses polling data to show that people across the Arab world want social and political change, but resent having it imposed on them. They aspire to their own kind of reforms. Zogby recommends that American politicians learn from Americans doing business in the Arab world.
"Businessmen are open to making a deal. They listen to the other side, in order to understand what the other side wants. They know they can’t sell unless they know the market they are selling into," he notes. "If we did our politics the way we do our business we will succeed in making peace and having good friends all over the world. I think our best public diplomats are our businessmen in the region because they are selling America everyday and they actually doing a great job of it because people want a little piece of America. They love our values, they love our culture, they love our products. They like our way of life, they just want to be a part of us, but we keep pushing them politically."
These misperceptions seem poised to impact the next generation of Americans as well. Zogby points out that the U.S. education system teaches little about Arabs and the Middle East. He argues that this knowledge gap must be overcome - and false U.S. perceptions debunked - before the United States can truly hope to win the hearts and minds of the Arab people.
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