The World Through Arab Eyes

The writing of a new Middle East narrative.

The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public  Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East. By Shibley Telhami. Basic Books, New York, 2013. 240 pp.

The Arab uprisings since December 2010 have revolutionized parts of the Arab region, but they have also revolutionized how the world writes about it. The scholarship and serious popular literature on the Arab region in the West have vastly improved in the past few years, for the simple reason that authors have been forced to write about the realities of what ordinary Arab men and women have put on the global agenda. We still see the occasional piece of intellectual exhibitionism by oddballs and ideologues, as well as the occasional indigenous Arab knucklehead, who respond to the current turbulent state of the Arab transformations by decrying the inability of Arabs and Muslims to practice democracy or master the art of politics. The dominant trend, however, is clearly toward much more accurate writing on the Arab world, as millions of ordinary citizens express themselves and struggle to transform their societies, seeking to infuse them with the values of democracy, freedom, dignity and social justice that remain powerful and structural drivers of Arab identity.

Most serious scholars and media analysts at their best seek to answer two core questions. First, what are the meaningful changes in actors and power relations on the ground that are transforming the political-social orders of our region, and which of those changes are temporary or permanent? Second, what are the underlying values that define the peoples of the Arab countries, and how do those values shape the core aspirations, routine political conduct or occasional insurrectionary bursts of millions of Arabs? In other words, have we never had an Arab democracy because something in our values or culture prevents democracy from taking root? Or is the lack of democracy a reflection of the fact that our values are fine but our citizens simply have never had an opportunity to create such governance systems, because Arab countries in the past century have almost always been ruled by non-democratic autocrats or monarchs with the sustained approval of foreign powers from East and West alike?

In the attempt to define the most important changes that have occurred in the Arab region since the uprisings began, I would note two powerful and meaningful things: first, the birth of the Arab citizen as an individual who feels that he or she has rights and also has the ability to change society for the better; second, the birth of a public political sphere in which many established forces (armed forces, Islamists) and new actors (revolutionary youth, independent media) engage openly to shape their governance system, write their constitution and define their national values through participatory means under the rule of law. These two fundamental changes have caused a parallel change in how local and foreign narratives describe what is taking place in our region. The actors in this epic drama of national self-definition and self-determination—ordinary men and women and organized political forces—have also become the scriptwriters of the narratives about their own world.

This means that Arabs and foreigners alike have moved a long way recently toward narrating our Arab people and societies as we really are—and not as extremist ideologues here and abroad would imagine us. I am struck and delighted by the fact that the vast majority of recent media coverage of our region, along with scores of books and studies by Arabs and foreigners alike, delve into our varied realities across the different cultures of the Arab region rather than portray a monolithic and static region defined only by ancient religion or foreign colonial ravages. The important new elements now being studied include ever-evolving social movements, the erratic world of religion and politics, the durability and resurgence of the ‘deep state,’ the weak showing of civil society and secular politics, the imperatives of social justice and dignity, and the centuries-old interventions of regional and foreign powers that seek influence or control in the region. Among the most impressive new developments are websites in the United States, Europe and Arab countries that daily compile a wide range of topical writing that is striking for its accurate narration of realities on the ground.

Shibley Telhami’s The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East is, to my mind, among the most useful and readable of these offerings. I single it out because of its double advantage of analyzing current attitudes and developments across the region while also grounding that analysis in the past ten years of public opinion polling that Telhami has conducted across the Arab world. This combination buttresses Telhami’s current observations with a rich and ever-relevant body of factual historical data that both mirrors and also helps us to better understand the attitudes, values and aspirations of those ordinary men and women who have fought and struggled for nearly three years to take command of their own destiny.

Telhami’s combination of solid substance, readable style and pertinent analytical insights is brought to bear on a series of key dimensions of public opinion and political values and aspirations across the Arab world, including: the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the quest for democracy, religious-secular balances, perceptions of the current uprisings, the interplay between national and pan-Arab identities, the role of media, and attitudes to the United States, Israel, Iran and other major regional actors. One of the great services he provides here, as he does in all his writings and commentaries, is to point out in clear terms the complexities and relationships among the many dimensions of the issues that shape the worldviews of ordinary Arab men and women. So, religion, democracy, Palestine, and American or British foreign policy are all distinct issues in our lives and society, but Arab citizens often perceive them to be interconnected. The many ways in which Arabs simultaneously view the United States both positively and negatively are neatly explained in a chapter that touches on values, democracy, Palestine, Iraq and other issues—all of which feed into the cerebral and emotional processors that determine how an individual in fact views the United States with fear, respect, disdain and envy—without feeling any contradictions. Arab views of Iran are similarly analyzed with the nuance and multi-dimensionalism that actually shape how people view Iran, and how such views evolve in line with events in Iran and elsewhere.

Telhami’s closing chapter on how Arab public opinion will influence the reshaping of the Middle East is an outstanding summary of the likely implications of the current awakening and activation of Arab public opinion because it blends the hard facts of public attitudes with the unpredictable nature of political and social change. The eight points he makes touch on the varied transformations in the Arab countries and their enduring, evolving and pervasive nature, the role of other factors beyond public sentiments, changing regional power configurations, and—apologies to the wild ideologues of the West and our own Arab oddballs, but here it comes again—the continuing and central impact of Arab attitudes to the conduct of Israel and the United States.

Telhami once again shows the bounty of combining the best of American scholarly traditions with the fruits of on-the-ground research and analysis in the Arab world. He links current developments with a longer legacy of popular values and attitudes that will always shape those developments. He reminds us of the importance of mustering the honesty to try to really understand the sentiments and aspirations of millions of ordinary Arabs who are now turning their world—and perhaps the worlds of others—upside down.

Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and editor-at-large of the Beirut Daily Star. On Twitter: @RamiKhouri.