Indeed, When You Listen, You Learn

Arab public sentiments often go against the perceived realities about our region among both Arab governments and Western elites, both of whom would benefit from listening to ordinary Arab men and women more regularly.

Policymakers, scholars, and analysts essentially have three main options for guidance when they analyze events around the Arab Middle East or decide on policies to pursue: listen to Arab governments, listen to Arab public opinion, or listen to foreign analysts and governments. The advent of public opinion polling across the Arab world in recent decades allows us to gauge the sentiments of ordinary people in ways that had been impossible for most of the years since the 1960s, because Arab governments broadly did not allow their people to think independently and did not allow pollsters to measure such thinking when it did occur.

This has changed, and public opinion polls regularly provide important insights into the sentiments and values of ordinary Arab men and women. Listening to citizens and giving them an opportunity to participate in shaping their governments’ policies has been a missing element in all Arab countries, without exception, in modern Arab history, which might help explain the messy and violent conditions around our region today.

What do we learn when we actually listen to Arab citizens? Zogby Research Services, headed by the experienced Arab-American political activist James Zogby, just surveyed over 7,400 adults in six Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), Turkey, and Iran, for an annual gathering hosted by the United Arab Emirates government.

Zogby notes that, “When you listen, you learn,” and what we learn is very instructive in several arenas. Most interestingly, in my view, actual (rather than imagined) Arab public sentiments often go against the perceived realities about our region among both Arab governments and Western elites, both of whom would benefit from listening to ordinary Arab men and women more regularly.

Here are a few highlights from the poll results that I found noteworthy:

As expected, people in Iraqi are divided on their views of their own national institutions and regional players’ actions in their country. Sunnis mostly lack confidence in the Iraqi military, Iran’s involvement, or the Popular Mobilization Units that are fighting “Islamic State” (ISIS), while Iraqi Shiites support the actions of all these. The more significant finding, however, is the “remarkable consensus” on two important issues: that the cause of the conflict in Iraq is that, “the government in Baghdad does not represent all Iraqis,” and that, “the best way to ultimately resolve the conflict…is forming a more inclusive representative government”—and not partition, with the Kurds also supporting such a representative central government.

I would guess that this Iraqi desire for inclusive, representative governance within a unified national framework is mirrored in most Arab countries that are wracked by war and sectarian tensions, like Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria. Ordinary citizens probably hold much more rational and constructive views on how to resolve those conflicts than the warlords and officials, not to mention foreign powers that now mostly shape policy.

The poll found that ISIS was mentioned as the most serious extremist problem facing the region in every country except Jordan, where Al-Qaeda is ranked first. More interestingly—and significant for counter-terrorism purposes—is that in most countries polled citizens identified, “corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments” and, “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas” as the most important causes of religious extremism.

Parallel to this focus on domestic issues that drive extremism, polled citizens ranked “anger at the U.S.” at the very bottom of their list in every country (perhaps due to “the U.S.’s lighter regional footprint,” Zogby notes). In other words, the hard work to counter extremism and terrorism must be done within Arab states primarily, and should focus on promoting better governance primarily, to remove the issues of discontent and humiliation that native religious and political extremists exploit to recruit members to their groups.

The most effective way to defeat extremism, polled respondents in every country said, was by “changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideas,” followed by “countering the messages and ideas” of extremist groups.

The poll found what every other poll has found in recent decades—that people across the Arab region care deeply about the condition of Palestine. In every Arab country, the Palestine situation was at the top of the list (or one point shy of the top) of issues that were important to people. Overwhelming majorities in every country, except Iraq, wanted their governments to provide more aid to support the Palestinians and to achieve national reconciliation.

Arabs polled broadly remain willing to live in peace with Israel if Palestinians also achieve their national rights, but the behavior of the Netanyahu government has generated doubts in Arab public opinion about Israel’s desire for the same kind of coexistence. Two-thirds of people in Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are ready to make peace, but almost half the citizens in these countries doubt Israel’s desire for peace. In Egypt and Iraq, a strong majority today reject peace with Israel.

Yes, indeed. If you listen, you learn, and what you learn from listening to ordinary men and women across the Arab world is that they value stability, peace, democracy, coexistence, national unity, and justice in Palestine.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global