August 15, 2005

Arab Street

While researching some stuff this morning, I came across a public opinion poll of the "Arab street" from February, by the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan, that had more than a few surprising conclusions in it (and some not-so-surprising). I'm not sure if this was plastered all over blog-world way back when—sometimes I miss these things—but a few of the points seem worth dredging back up. Bear in mind the survey was conducted in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories.

1) Arabs in the survey based their views of the West on fairly flimsy knowledge—fewer than half of respondents believe they have a "good understanding" of culture and society in France, the US, and UK. Most believed that the West professed many positive values, but disapproved of the fact that Western actions don't tend to live up to those values.

2) Cultural disparities between the West and the Arab world aren't seen to be at the core of current tensions. However, Arabs believe that their own societal values contrast with the West. Western societies are associated with individual liberty, democracy, and technological progress, but increased levels of societal problems. The respondents believed their own societies have stronger values of tradition and family. On the other hand, they believe that financial and administrative corruption are more prevalent in Arab societies than in the West.

3) France is viewed far more positively than the US or UK in most of the regions polled (with the exception of Lebanon). Not only that, but respondents tended to characterize France as "promoting democracy and human rights," whereas the US and UK were seen as "promot[ing] their own interests, impos[ing] their wills on other countries" and violating human rights.

4) Al-Jazeerah seems to have no effect on attitudes towards the West: "There was no clear-cut statistical evidence found to support the contention that high levels of viewership of Arab satellite TV broadcasts bears any relation to negative perceptions of foreign policy."

5) The majority of Arabs believe US foreign policy is "unduly influenced by the 'Zionist Lobby'." (And, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as a fundamental basis for many problems between the Arab world and the US.)

6) There was no particular correlation between firm Islamic beliefs and anti-Western attitudes. "[S]trong adherence to the precepts of Islam was not found to necessarily equate with hostility or negativity toward the West."

7) The survey found considerable support for a more flexible interpretation of Islam.

8) Young people are about "half as likely" to view the US and UK positively as are older generations. Attitudes toward the West improve somewhat with education, but it's still by and large hostile.

9) Respondents seem to understand terrorism differently than, say, the State Department. In particular, "Arabs are inclined to define terrorism more according to the motivations of the combatants rather than by the nature of the act." Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a correlation between the levels of disaffection with the West and this variant definition of terrorism.

#6 seems especially important, I think. Generally speaking, Americans—including both the government and commentators—have a tendency to equate "moderate" Arabs with "pro-Western" Arabs. The Iraqi Shiites should have disabused us of that notion, obviously, but they haven't, necessarily.
-- Brad Plumer 11:56 AM || ||