Arab Voices

How Arab public opinion matters.

Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters. By James Zogby. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 248 pp.

I couldn’t resist making a cynical comment about U.S. public diplomacy when I testified before the U.S. Congress in 2004. As the George W. Bush administration launched wars in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, the State Department undertook aggressive efforts to improve America’s image among Arabs and Muslims. Hired at one stage to lead the effort was Charlotte Beers, a successful Madison Avenue marketing executive. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had quipped that she had convinced him to buy Uncle Ben’s rice. “We are selling a product,” Powell explained. “We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy.” Invited by a congressional subcommittee as the Al Jazeera bureau chief in Washington to comment on U.S. public diplomacy, I retorted in kind: “Marketing Uncle Ben’s rice is different from marketing the policies of Uncle Sam’s Rice”—an allusion to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor at the time.

That is the same message in Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters, by James Zogby, who also happened to testify in that Capitol Hill hearing. The first part of the book deals with what Zogby calls “hearing problems,” in which he emphasizes the need for the West to listen to Arabs themselves through public opinion surveys rather than stereotypes and anecdotes. Then, Zogby proceeds to detail and refute five “super myths” about Arabs, which he believes have been propagated by influential writers like Thomas Friedman, the “Foreign Affairs” columnist of the New York Times, and the late author Raphael Patai, author of The Arab Mind. According to Zogby, these myths are that Arabs “are all the same;” that they are disunited, driven by anger and religion, and immutable.

In making his case, Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, relies on his own personal observations in decades of visits to Arab countries. More importantly, he cites the findings of extensive surveys conducted throughout the region since 2002 by Zogby International, run by his brother John. Contrary to the claims of some pundits who emphasized Arab hatred, he writes, the poll data showed that majorities in all countries surveyed were favorably inclined toward American democracy, freedom, education, science, technology, films, television, and consumer products. “It wasn’t American values or people that had caused the image of the United States to crater,” Zogby explains. “America’s overall ranking sank because of the incredibly low marks Arabs gave to U.S. policy toward Arab nations generally and Palestinians specifically.”

In his final section, Zogby offers a blueprint for improving the hearing problems. His checklist includes: reaching out to Arabs in an honest dialogue; greater domestic transparency about the Middle East; progress toward resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; demand-driven economic aid; more cultural exchanges; and utilizing Arab Americans in bridge building efforts.

No doubt that Zogby’s stories, anecdotes, and polls reflect genuine Arab grievances toward the U.S. and other Western governments. Unfortunately, the book neglects to say much about the voices, either on the ‘Arab street’ or among Arab Americans, speaking out against undemocratic Arab governments. To what extent could we rely on public opinion in countries where most people didn’t dare to speak their mind? Whatever their good intentions, the pollsters may only be able to tell us half-truths.

Hafez Al Mirazi is director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. He is also host of Studio Cairo, a weekly program about Egyptian politics featured on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel. Prior to returning to his native Egypt, Al Mirazi worked as a correspondent in the United States for nearly twenty-five years. He served as Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, and hosted the channel’s weekly show From Washington.