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Mythology and reality in US-Arab perceptions

Mar 16,2017 - Last updated at Mar 16,2017

The problematic contrast between how Arabs see themselves and how they are generally perceived in the US public sphere of media and politics jolted me again this week, as I followed American mainstream mass media that mostly mentions Arab countries in the context of war, terrorism, refugees, collapsing states or security threats.

I simultaneously read through the results of the new Arab Opinion Index poll published by the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies that provided multiple insights into the actual identities, values and policy views of Arabs across our region.

The contrast between the Arab reality and its perception in the US was stark and troubling.

The latest poll (the fifth since 2011) interviewed 18,310 individuals in 12 Arab countries, with an overall margin of error of +/- 2 per cent.

Several significant findings deserve greater appreciation in the US and other Western lands that still largely deal with an imagined, rather than the actual, Arab world.

Arab citizens’ attitudes towards Daesh indicate that religiosity does not play as big a role in people’s actions as often perceived abroad. 

Eighty-nine per cent of respondents opposed Daesh, while just 2 per cent had a “very positive” and 3 per cent had a “positive to some extent” view of Daesh.

This reconfirms the overwhelming rejection of Daesh in Arab societies, though it is also worrying that 5 per cent have positive views of it.

More interestingly, Arab views of Daesh are not correlated with religiosity, the survey found, as positive and negative views were expressed equally frequently by people who identify themselves as “very religious”, “religious” and “not religious”.

Other questions on individual religiosity, views of Daesh, and the role of religion in public life indicate that attitudes towards Daesh are defined by political considerations, rather than by religious beliefs.

While the prevalent preference among Americans to deal with Daesh seems to be ongoing military action or promoting “moderate Islam”, just 17 per cent of Arabs suggest military action as their first option.

The other first options among the majority of respondents included “ending foreign intervention”, “supporting Arab democratic transition”, “resolving the Palestinian cause” and “ending the Syrian conflict in a manner which meets the aspirations of the Syrian people”.

In other words, the survey analysts said, “in broad terms, the Arab public supports taking a comprehensive set of political, economic, social and military measures to confront terrorism”.

The Arab focus on political factors that exacerbate many of our problems was also reflected in increasing public disenchantment with the policies of Arab and foreign powers towards Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Strong majorities negatively viewed the foreign policies of Russia, Iran and the United States (from 66 to 75 per cent).

Arabs widely also saw the US as the greatest single threat to collective Arab security — 67 per cent of Arabs said both the US or Israel pose the greatest threat to collective Arab security (10 per cent said Iran).

Majorities of Arabs (from 59 to 89 per cent) saw Israel, the US, Russia, Iran and France as threatening the region’s stability.

It was fascinating to see that while the US government and Israel are seeking a mythological alliance of Arabs and Israel against Iran, the survey found that the overwhelming majority of Arabs (86 per cent) reject official recognition of Israel by their governments.

This reflected widespread perception of Israel’s colonialist policies towards the Palestinians and its expansionist threat to other Arab countries.

Mohammad Al Masri, coordinator of the Arab Opinion Index, explained this Arab animosity towards Israel as reflecting political actions, rather than being framed in cultural or religious terms.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the poll was about the material condition of Arab families, and their views of the biggest problems they faced.

The single most pressing problem facing respondents’ country was economic condition (44 per cent), followed by priorities related to government performance (20 per cent), stalled democratic transition, deficiencies in public services, and the spread of financial and administrative corruption.

Not surprisingly, the survey also identified widespread and total lack of satisfaction with people’s financial circumstances.

Nearly half (49 per cent) said their household incomes were sufficient to cover necessary expenditures, but they could not make any savings (designated as living “in hardship”).

Another 29 per cent of Arab citizens cannot cover their basic family expenses, and thus live “in need”.

In other words, nearly four out of five Arabs live in precarious family situations where they do not have enough money, savings or social safety net mechanisms to handle critical human needs in daily life or in an emergency.

These findings cry out for a better grasp of the linkages between this crushing and precarious reality at family level, the sustained autocratic and increasingly incompetent policies of Arab governments that are supported by foreign powers, and the impacts of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war-making politics of regional Arab and non-Arab powers — precisely the biggest issues for ordinary Arabs that almost never appear in the US public sphere.


The survey results are available online at

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