by Lou Mancinelli
Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Washington D.C. based Arab American Institute discussed his new book “Arab Voices – What They Are Saying To Us, and Why It Matters,” (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) Monday evening at the Woodmere Art Museum as part of the speaker series of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival.
Zogby’s research, he said, is full of illuminating contradictions between American perceptions and fact about Arabs — people living in the 22 Arab language-speaking countries that stretch from northern Africa to central Asia. Arabs, Zogby said, actually like Americans and share many of the same values and concerns.
But, Zogby said,level of inaccurate information and myths perpetuated by America’s media and imposed on the political and social culture about violent, religious Arabs breeds widespread ignorance about who the people living in the Arab world actually are. And that is a risk, a dangerous setup he said.
“It’s not just that we don’t know,” he said, “but we don’t want to know because it changes the politics of what we want to do.”
Zogby, who often appears on television and radio — and since 1992 has written a weekly column on U.S. politics for 14 major Arab newspapers — used as an example a host of lies in newspaper and television reports leading up to and into the war in Iraq, He mentioned the false reports about weapons of mass destruction, promises that the war would be fast, and the inaccurate images of Iraqis throwing flowers and welcoming American troops.
“When we started polling around the Iraq War, 73 percent of Democrats said they needed to know more,” said Zogby, also a senior analyst with his brother’s polling firm, Zogby International and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Eighty-two percent of Republicans said they already knew enough.”
“When we ask Americans why they [Arabs] hate us, 85 percent say because of our values, ” Zogby said. “But 65 percent of Arabs say they like our values.”
His message was this: We need to listen to what people in the Arab world are saying. He said that if people listened, they would realize what Americans and Arabs have in common. If we do not listen, he said, the result would be a sense of certitude about false impressions of Arab people presented to us in the media and by our political leaders.
The book is based on a decade of data pulled from. Zogby’s polling of people of varying ranges of educational levels, professions and ages.
Zogby, a co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign who frequently traveled to the Middle East in delegations with former Vice-President Al Gore, said his polling shows a people that lok a lot more like us than we think.
“When we poll, we find the number one priority in their lives is the economy. Number two is education, and number three is healthcare,” he said. “They worry about if they are going to be able to take care of their children.”
Another myth of the image of Arabs is they are people who are so different they have nothing in common, but according to Dr. Zogby there are common threads.
“It’s almost like you open a window and you hear voices shouting out at us,” said Dr. Zogby. “You learn they don’t hate us.”
As an example, Zogby referred to a mall in Saudi Arabia in which the Starbucks in the middle is a popular location, not because the coffee is good, according to Zogby, but because “they are buying a piece of America.” In that same mall, he saw a teenage boy wearing jeans and a Yankees cap.
“We export a way of life, believe it or not,” Zogby said.
One of the most popular shows in the Arab world, according to Dr. Zogby is “Arab’s Got Talent,” something like “American Idol.”
“It’s us,” said he said. “That’s what we do.”
Religious shows, he noted, ranked eight out of nine on favorite programs to watch in the Arab world. The list was topped by movies, game and reality shows.
That does not mean that there are not problems, Zogby said, Palestine is to the Arabs what the Holocaust is to the Jewish, according to. Zogby. Not because of the scale, but because they look at it and see commonalities and the loss of dignity in a world they cannot control.
“They see that it could be me,” he said. “It’s one of the ties that bind.”
While it upset Zogby that three times as many American students study Japanese than Arabic as a foreign language, he is inspired by efforts across the nation by students who organize and start Arab clubs at their schools to learn more about the part of the world that, according to Dr. Zogby, has more U.S. investments, interest and allies than any other part of the world.
Perhaps as compelling as Zogby’s message are his questions. How can we learn more? What can we do?
“We listen,” he said. “The problem is we don’t listen. Our policy makers don’t listen. If you want someone to hear you, listen to them first.”
Zogby fielded a few questions from the crowd of more than 50 at the event sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Business Association (CHBA).
One member of the audience asked Zogby about accuracy those polled might or might not be wary of speaking the truth for fear of being punished.
Zogby said that he and his staff, who only poll in democratic Arab countries, heard so many responses that were critical of their current government and nepotism, he did believe people were responding in earnest. For example, 76 percent of Arabs believe women should have rights and 74 percent believe in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
About Egypt, he said that America is viewed as part of the problem and not as part of the solution. One reason Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is disliked is because of his support of the things like the Iraq War and the United States.
“We won’t change until more people are educated,” said Chestnut Hill resident Julia Sawabini after the presentation. “We won’t change until more people speak up and until we stop saying ‘Arabs are terrorists.’ I grew up and Israelis were freedom fighters and Arabs were terrorists. How can you ever have an understanding when things are like that?”
“Arab Voices – What They Are Saying To Us, and Why It Matters,” is available at amazon.com and numerous other locations.
For more information about further presentations as part of the speaker series of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, and other events hosted by the Chestnut Hill Business Association visit chestnuthillpa.com.