Upon reviewing the results of the Arab News/YouGov poll “The Arab Image in the US” in which 2,057 US citizens were surveyed, I recalled something that happened to me when I was a student taking a public transportation bus to my university in Washington.
A young man got on the bus and sat next to me. He quickly started a conversation by asking me where I was from. I paused before I answered, wondering if he would know the small country from which I am from. I decided instead to make it easier for him and told him I was an Arab.
His response? “I hate Arabs!” I was offended and horrified and shot back by asking: “Why? Have they hurt you in any way?” He answered: “No. But you never know.”
It was an example of preemptive hate, I thought, and this story stayed with me. I remember it every time the American attitude toward the Arab world is discussed.
After reading about the findings of the Arab News/YouGov poll, which found “massive gaps in the US public knowledge about the region,” I wondered whether that bus rider even knew where the Arab region was. The poll found that 65 percent of the Americans said they do not know much about the Arab world and 81 percent could not identify it on a map.
Media coverage of the region was found to be lacking. Half of the Americans who were polled wanted more news about the Arab world than they are getting. The American public wants more coverage on Arab societal issues and more arts, science and culture coverage. A lack of knowledge regarding the region is at the core of the problem as 35 percent said they do not know much about the Arab world and are keen to find out more. However, 30 percent do not know much and said they are not interested in finding out more.
Interestingly, 52 percent of the respondents consider the media to be effective in depicting the true image of the region.
What is unbelievable is that after more than six decades of American involvement in the region politically, and over a decade of military involvement, most Americans could not identify the Arab world on a map. However, they were able to identify specific countries as being part of the Arab world.
The most astonishing finding, in my view, was that 21 percent of the Americans polled identified the “Sultanate of Agrabah” as part of the Arab world even though it is a fictional place from the movie “Aladdin.” A previous poll conducted by Public Policy Polling during the American election campaign in 2016 found that 30 percent of Republican voters supported bombing Agrabah, but thankfully 57 percent said they were not sure!
American attitudes toward Arabs have been negative for a long time, even before the 9/11 attacks, according to polling data from the past decade.
To be fair to Americans, Arab attitudes toward the US are not much better. A poll by the Pew Research Center conducted between 2002-2003, for example, found that the US was less popular in the Middle East than in any other part of the world.
Why do the Arabs and the Americans seem as though they are ships passing in the night? It is a historic and very complex relationship.
Dr. Amal Mudallali
Why do the Arabs and the Americans seem as though they are ships passing in the night? It is a historic and very complex relationship that does not lend itself to the over-simplified question that was asked during the Bush era: “Why do they hate us?” The reason is a combination of politics, culture and economics as well as an ingrained habit and a lack of knowledge about each other.
Jim Zogby, one of the best authorities on America and the Arabs, told me: “America’s understanding of the Arab world is derivative. The Arabs have not projected an image of their own so the Americans get it from the media, politics and from popular culture.”
He also talked about the role of education, saying that in American schools there are more students who study ancient Greek than Arabic. He added that there is little knowledge of Islamic civilization and no appreciation of Arab science or literature. What they know comes from the media and political culture and that is skewed around Israel, he said.
David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) — another polling expert who has studied attitudes in the region and US-Arab relations for a long time — agrees that it is a negative and grim picture and believes it is due to a combination of factors. For some people in the US “it is a general sense of isolationism” and “a trend where people are like this with all foreign countries and not only the Arabs,” he said. Others are “prejudiced” but most importantly, “there is a kind of tendency to associate the whole region with terrorism, refugees and civil war. The region does not have a positive image and a lot of it is based on ignorance and narrow- mindedness.”
However, he also believes that it works both ways. He has studied Arab views of the US and found similar trends but in both cases attitudes fluctuate, he said. He also found a major difference between the views of the elites and the street.
Zogby put his finger on the problem, saying the media plays an important role in forming attitudes and these media organizations “found their experts and they are people who have hostile attitudes toward the Arabs. They have in-house commentators from previous administrations who have an ax to grind and they … view the Arab world within the prism of Israel.”
But the Arab world also has a role in the persistence of the negative image that the region and its people suffer in the US.
“The Arabs did nothing,” Zogby said. They “think the president comes and gives a speech and that is enough. They have done nothing to craft their image.”
If “you do nothing to define yourself, others do it for you,” he added.
Pollock agrees that the Arabs “are not working on it lately. It is more lobbying, public relations and media efforts of different countries.”
The problem with this approach is that it is too concentrated on individual countries and their bilateral relationships with the US government rather than the general public and grassroots sentiment.
According to Pollock, working to change the general public’s attitude is an “uphill battle and it takes big effort but it is worth doing.”
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.