The Editors Weblog 12 March 2005
 
Editors Voice:
The Survey that American and Arab Media Try to Ignore

"Revisiting the Arab street" is a major study that cannot be ignored by media from around the world: it gives a totally new vision of what is the Arab public opinion today. Especially I recommend the section called "rethinking terrorism" (see below the synthesis of the study).

The report published by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan is available since mid February 2005 but very few media covered it! Some in Europe and in Maghreb, but how many in the States and in the rest of the world? (maybe I'm wrong...). As well, the report was not really covered by (conservative) Arab media, just because it reveals an Arab public opinion they can't accept or assume!


Thanks to Charles Hawley, Der Spiegel, for helping us to understand this disturbing study about Middle East issues and the "war on terror": "Within the space of nine short weeks from early January to the beginning of March, the image of a region rapidly sliding into a morass of chaos and violence has whiplashed to a storybook tale of an Arab world witnessing the birth of democracy. The Palestinians went to the polls in early January, the Iraqis in late January, the protests in Lebanon -- optimistically dubbed the Cedar Revolution by the US State Department -- appear to be leveraging the Syrian occupiers out of the country and even Saudi Arabia held regional elections recently...


In Eastern Europe, though, the end of the Cold War resulted in a dozen countries embracing democracy and the values of the West. But that, suggests a new study - funded by the Ford foundation - on Middle Eastern public opinion released by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in February 2005, is not likely to happen this time. The countries and bodies surveyed -- Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority -- suggest that the so-called "Arab Street" doesn't see the existence of an over-arching conflict of values between the West and the Middle East at all. Rather, the tensions are seen almost completely as a result of United States and British foreign policies in the region.


The survey, which specifically concentrated on attitudes toward the US, the United Kingdom and France, painted a bleak picture. The words most associated with the US and the UK were "racist," "aggressive," "morally decadent" and "imperialistic" among other uncomplimentary concepts."


Other quotes of the Spiegel's article:


"It's not all bad, however. Western societies are seen as bastions of liberalism, individual liberty and technical progress, yet they are plagued by social problems...


It is in the area of foreign policy, however, where most of the disgust with Western countries seems to lie -- and where it becomes apparent that the Middle East has a much more nuanced view of the West than many occidental commentators would have one believe... Over 70 percent in the countries surveyed, with the exception of Lebanon, felt that the US and the UK attempt to dominate countries through the offer of foreign aid and fewer than two in 10 Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians see the US as supporting democracy in the region.


"Thus," write the authors of the study, "while the survey reflected the growing tensions between the Arab world and the West, it does not support the caricature of an Arab public that fully and uniformly rejects the West."


"... American and British policy in Iraq and US policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are almost universally rejected. Worse, distrust of America is even higher among Middle Eastern youth. Only 15 to 20 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 24 hold favourable attitudes toward America. Ominously, fully 50 percent of the population in the region is under the age of 25 and it is getting even younger. Such a demographic time bomb, the study concludes, means that "positive attitudes toward the US and the UK will continue to plummet unless major changes in their foreign policies are implemented."


"... Terrorism, a concept many in Europe and the United States have come to associate almost exclusively with Islamic countries, is defined much differently in the countries surveyed. Over 85 percent of the population in four of the five countries surveyed felt that the war against Iraq was an act of terrorism (the exception being Lebanon where 64 percent felt that way)."


"... Surprisingly, while many in the West are fed on a steady diet of coverage that plays up "the West versus Islam," those in the Middle East do not see the current conflicts as being driven by a Muslim-Christian divide. In fact, most feel the US places little value on religion. The survey also found a more nuanced self-image of Muslim in the Middle East than is often protrayed in the West. While most said they supported Sharia law as a source for legislation, only a tiny minority said they wanted a Taliban-like interpretation of the religious code."

Sources: Der Spiegel and the Center for Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan.


Please find below a synthesis of the study provided by the Center for Strategic Studies:


CSS collaborated with other research centers to conduct this survey in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories (a region known collectively as "the Mashreq"). To one degree or another, all of the countries chosen are directly affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict and thus their political orientations, especially in relationship to the West, are profoundly shaped by that conflict. In addition, all of the nations studied share a colonial history with France and the United Kingdom and all are heavily affected by US policies in the region.


The survey targeted attitudes regarding the US, the UK, and France, as well as attitudes regarding the place of Islam in politics, the definition of terrorism, and the importance of Arab satellite TV in the formation of regional opinions. National samples in all of these countries were drawn using a multistage, self-weighted design representing all social strata, regions, rural and urban areas, gender, age, occupation, and education distribution in the respective societies. In total, 9,700 people were interviewed: 1200 in each national sample; 500 university students in each country; 120 members of the business community in each country; and, 120 members of the media community in each country.


The research questionnaire included 150 questions, covering a wide range of issues.


SECTION 1: WHERE ARABS STAND explores Arab opinions toward the West.


I. ATTITUDES TOWARD THE WEST examines Arab attitudes toward France, the US, and the UK generally and, more particularly, as destinations for work, study, medical care or tourism. Age, education and exposure to the West are analyzed as determining factors in the formation of public attitudes.
II.. ASSESSING ARAB-WEST BILATERAL RELATIONS considers perceptions regarding bilateral cultural, economic and political relations with three Western countries -- the US, the UK, and France.


SECTION 2: US AND THE OTHER analyzes Arab perceptions of the West as juxtaposed to attitudes about their own culture.


III. PERCEPTIONS OF THE WEST AND THE ARAB WORLD explores Arab knowledge of the West and attitudes about societal and individual values deemed as characteristic of the West and the Arab World.
IV. ISLAM IN THE ARAB WORLD examines the perceived role for Shari'a in legislation. It also considers the degree to which Arab societies are "open" or "closed" to new interpretation of religion and sheds light on the importance that attitudes toward the role of Shari'a in legislation have in the formation of opinions about the West.


SECTION 3: ENGAGING THE WEST - PERCEPTIONS OF WESTERN FOREIGN POLICIES


V. WESTERN FOREIGN POLICY discusses Arab reactions to and perceptions about Western (and particularly US) foreign policy in the Middle East.
VI. CRITICAL CONFLICTS details how Arabs perceive US foreign policies, especially with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war in Iraq.
VII. RETHINKING TERRORISM examines how the Arab definition of terrorism diverges from the standard concept of terrorism in the West.


SECTION 4 : CONCLUSIONS

Rethinking Terrorism. Arabs demonstrate a considerably different definition of terrorism than that understood in the West. Arab views of terrorism do not coincide with those defined by the US State Department as "all premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non combatant targets?. Rather, they more often see violent actions -- and the groups that perpetrate them -- through a political filter which determines whether violent acts were undertaken in response to the perceived threats and aggression, most usually seen to be coming from the US and Israel.


Thus, Arabs are inclined to define terrorism more according to the motivations of the combatants rather than by the nature of the act. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between the levels of disaffection with the West and this variant definition of terrorism.


Respondents demonstrated a similar difference in identifying groups using such tactics. Where tactics are viewed as reactions to provocations from the US and/or Israel, more Arabs view the groups identified as terrorist organizations by the West to be legitimate resistance organizations. Attitudes toward the status of Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group remain more controversial, as do perceptions of the "legitimacy" of the 9/11 attacks. Overview of Findings


The study draws seven conclusions:


1) Arabs hold coherent notions of what constitute the values of Western and Arab societies. They associate the West with individual liberty and wealth, while they view themselves as emphasizing religion and family.
2) Arab perceptions of Western societal and cultural values do not determine their attitudes toward Western foreign policies.
3) Religion is not the basis of tension between Arabs and the West.
4) The Arab world does not reject the professed goals of the West?s foreign policies toward the Arab World, but rather objects to the discrepancy between professed ideals and perceived reality.
5) Arabs disagree fundamentally with US positions on issues such as the definition of terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and war in Iraq.
6) Despite disagreements and disillusionments, many Arabs desire stronger relations between their countries and the West.
7) Arab dissatisfaction with US policies is unlikely to diminish in the absence of significant US foreign policy changes.


CONCLUSIONS
In general, the study finds that Arabs perceive important differences between the cultures and societies of the Arab world and the West. Cultural differences are not found to be at the heart of current Arab-West tensions. Rather, the conflict is rooted in deep-seated frustration with Western, and particularly American, foreign policies.


The survey provides little evidence that the tensions between the Arab world and the West, and specifically the US will diminish. Dissatisfaction with US foreign policy is widespread across the Mashreq, regardless of variables of age, educational background and professional status. Youths and those with less education are the most likely to hold negative attitudes.
The survey confirms the conventional wisdom that Arabs are largely disenchanted with the West, but it also suggests a number of important refinements. First, Arabs do not feel equally negatively toward all Western countries. Respondents recognize particular strengths of individual Western countries, and are willing, and even anxious, to engage with the West in specific areas.


Policymakers in the United States and the United Kingdom have reason to be concerned about the demographic and political trends in the region. The large, and ever-growing, youth population, the less educated, and those outside of elite circles hold the most hostile feelings toward those countries. Given the current demographic make-up of the Mashreq - with burgeoning young populations and limited upward mobility - relations are unlikely to improve in the absence of significant policy changes. Improving crosscultural dialogue and undertaking societal and cultural exchanges alone will not alleviate tensions.


The fundamental conclusion of "REVISITING THE ARAB STREET: RESEARCH FROM WITHIN" is that disapproval of Western foreign policy, most particularly as embodied by US policies in the Middle East, is at the heart of the fundamental disagreement between the West and the Arab World. This finding is consistent across the five Arab countries and for all demographic groups.


The full report REVISITING THE ARAB STREET: RESEARCH FROM WITHIN will be available on www.css-jordan.org


Editorsweblog : http://www.editorsweblog.org/2005/03/the_poll_that_a.html