Dr. James Zogby  Reuters
Zogby: “There is an anger on the right that is frightening.” Photo by Reuters
Text size

When former U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to improve the image of the United States in the Arab world, he entrusted the mission to Charlotte Beers, who began her career as a product manager for Uncle Ben's Rice. But clever copywriter's gimmicks - such as an inspiring film clip featuring a female Moroccan Olympic medalist running in shorts, or the Osama Bin Laden "Wanted dead or alive" poster that Beers attempted to place in Arab newspapers - didn't exactly go over big in Arab countries.

After the war began in Iraq, Beers left her job, but to this day, Dr. James Zogby finds it hard to understand how the great power that has invested so much money, blood and political capital in the Middle East, nonetheless behaves in a manner that is so divorced from reality and from a proper understanding of Arab mentality. This month Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute - a nonprofit organization that promotes the political and civic interests of the Arab American community - published a new book, "Arab Voices: What They're Saying to Us, and Why it Matters." The book, which has already received a warm recommendation from Jordan's Queen Noor, is based on public-opinion surveys conducted both in the Middle East and in the U.S. during the past decade by Zogby, 64, and his brother John; James is a senior analyst in John's international polling firm.

Zogby's book went on sale at almost the same time as the memoirs of President Bush, and he does not intend to let the former president off easy. "I am not going to read his book," he asserts in a conversation with Haaretz. "His comments on torture in one of the interviews, I find very disturbing. It means that like [former Vice President Dick] Cheney, he's admitting that they tortured - and I think they have to be held accountable. They misled the American people to think they did not torture, and people could be impeached for less than that. They violated a trust of the American people and compromised our values.

"What they told the American people about how long it would last and how much it would cost - one has to question whether they actually believed this rhetoric, and if they did, how blind or misguided they were. Or whether they knew better and were consciously deceiving [people when they said] six months, and the troops will be back home; it will take $2 billion and then Iraqi money will pay for the rest.

"We did a poll early in October about Iraqi views of the invasion, and a week after the poll, I turned the TV on and saw Cheney taking about [it] in a totally distorted manner, making a case that simply did not correspond to the results that we found. And I wrote a piece in the Guardian, 'Bend It Like Cheney,' where I argued that it's one thing to force the intelligence or fake the intelligence before you go in. But into the war, when you have poll results telling you that there is a real problem and the Iraqi people want Americans to leave and feel abused by the American soldiers - they were not paying attention to what reality was telling them on the ground.

"I believe it too [that democracy will ultimately come to the Middle East]. The question is if killing over 100,000 people and creating instability throughout the wider region and emboldening and empowering Iran was worth it. One fifth of the population was uprooted from their homes. Can it possibly be worth it? Can [this] possibly be the way that democracy will bloom? The answer is no. And more than 4,000 Americans dead, and tens of thousands injured with wounds that will last their entire lives. I believe in democracy too, but this is not the way to democracy, and the cost of our recklessness was so great that this is a stain on our history and a terrible injustice to the American people and Iraqi people."

In his book, Zogby confronts well-known columnist Thomas L. Friedman, describing him as "one of the most widely read purveyors of generalizations about Arabs in The New York Times" - generalizations that, according to Zogby, reflect a cynical bias that causes Friedman to accept simplistic views of "the Arab mind." The Arab world, says Zogby, has in fact experienced dozens of conflicts during the past 100 years, but Europe hasn't been free of civil wars either.

"So why," he asks, "does Friedman insist on explaining Arab political discord as uniquely the fault of tribal, emotional and irrational people? Cairo is not Riyadh, Riyadh is not Beirut, and Beirut is not Marrakech. The Arab world is more complex than the caricature presented by commentators, politicians and even academics."

Zogby adds that people like Friedman, and also former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, prefer to believe the stereotype of the Arab world with its 350 million people as being all of a piece - backward and unchanging, people mired in internal conflicts, lies, who are addicted to conspiracy theories and understand only force.

He is most infuriated by the contemptuous attitude of Westerners toward polls conducted in the Arab world, as when people say, "These are not democratic societies, and as repressive authoritarian societies, why should we listen to them?"

"Why then," asks Zogby, "do 85 percent of men in Saudi Arabia say they believe women should have equal rights? I hear this stuff all the time; this is an easy and a cheap way to dismiss something that you don't want to pay attention to. We've been polling for 10 years intensively on all kinds of issues, and we end up with results that are as nuanced and as thoughtful as any polls anywhere. People were critical of their government, were expressing reservations about policies they don't agree with - and people were telling us the truth.

"I've worked in these countries for over 30 years. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but it has a democratic culture. There are open debates. ... They speak their minds. If you get answers that are 95 percent the same, I'd say they are not telling us the truth. But when they say they disagree with this and are not happy about that - they are not afraid to tell you the truth."

Instead of asking "Why do Arabs hate America?" Zogby and his brother have tried in their polls to ask respondents for their views concerning specific aspects of U.S. influence on the Middle East. When asked about American science and technology, most of their responses were positive; similar replies were given that showed admiration of American democracy and freedom, education and entertainment products. But the headline "Arabs hate American policy toward their region" certainly won't sell so many newspapers," Zogby asserts.

He quotes citizens of Arab countries in his book who said that it's not that they hate America, but they feel that America hates them. According to the surveys conducted by the Zogbys in America, the situation is indeed complicated: Some 65 percent of Americans think that Iran is an Arab country, and 55 percent of the respondents in one of the polls did not find a single good thing to say about Arabs.

'A lid on Islamophobia'

Zogby, who was born in America to Lebanese immigrants, is a Catholic, but because of his activity, after 9/11 - when he became one of the more outspoken representatives of the Arab community - he received threats from people who saw him as representing Muslims. In recent months, he followed with concern the uproar surrounding the initiative to build an Islamic center two blocks away from Ground Zero.

Zogby: "After 9/11, George Bush was able to put a lid on Islamophobia. After the Park 51 issue [the plans for the Islamic center] exploded, I really hoped George Bush would come forward and say, 'Remember what I told you nine years ago? It was true then and it's true now.' But there is no adult supervision on the Republican side and the result was this thing got out of control. They've made Islam into a political issue - it's like gay marriage. With Democrats, it's surely better. With the Republicans it's gotten worse: Eighty-five percent of Republicans have negative attitudes toward Muslims.

"In 2008, a study of American movies pre-9/11 found 12 positive portrayals of Arabs out of 900. Since 9/11, [there have been] 200 Arab characters, with fewer than 30 positive - an improvement from 99 percent negative to 85 percent negative. ... [The situation is] a little bit better, but it doesn't come anywhere near the broader balance that we need.

"When we ask people what is the best thing they can say about Arabs - or [whether they can say] anything good, the answers we get are not pretty: 55 percent say 'nothing'; there is nothing good they can say about Arabs. Jews are sensitive about this and know how painful and dangerous it is. Unfortunately, this president cannot do it alone, because when he speaks there are too many people on the Republican side that won't listen to him, and some say, 'Well, he's a Muslim anyway.' There is anger on the right that is frightening, and a lack of connection to reality that is even more frightening. And these are [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu's allies."

Though President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vouch for Netanyahu's seriousness about the peace process, Zogby doesn't believe him. "I believe that the majority of the Israelis want peace, [but] I am not convinced that Benjamin Netanyahu does. If he wanted peace, he would behave differently, he would create a different kind of government. I just don't think he does. I remember his behavior in the 1990s and I don't believe this leopard changed his spots."

He is also very angry about claims that the new neighborhoods whose planning was announced by the Interior Ministry are part of Jerusalem. He understands the significance of the city for three religions, he says, but adds, "We are not talking about Jerusalem, the biblical holy city - we are talking about hills miles away from Jerusalem ... There is no one in the Bible who would accept the idea that Jabal Abu-Ghanem [site of the Jewish Har Homa neighborhood in south Jerusalem] was Jerusalem. I know Jabal Abu-Ghanem. It's not the place the Jews were longing to go to for 2,000 years, and calling it that is playing dangerous games."

Zogby says the fact that the House of Representatives is under Republican control will make things difficult for President Obama - but, because the Democrats still have a majority in the Senate, he believes it will cause less damage to U.S. relations with Arab countries than when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in the 1990s.

"When you had a Congress in the 1990s that forbade any American diplomat from meeting with a Palestinian in Jerusalem, or the religious freedom committee that was created to use a club against Muslims and not universal protection of religious rights - it was very selective. This [Democratic] Congress [was] always willing to give the president enough leeway to try to pursue diplomacy. "Maybe Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen, designated new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee] would like legislation like that, but I just don't think it will pass both houses. They will try to create difficulties, probably around foreign aid, some symbolic things like Jerusalem, or legislation like forcing the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or building an embassy in Jerusalem - threatening to allocate the money otherwise, somewhere else. These are things that will create havoc, but I don't think [they] will pass the Senate."

During the past decade, he points out, American Arabs have voted Democrat by a proportion of some two thirds. "Actually we have two new Arab Republicans this year in Congress. When I came to Washington [in the mid-1970s] there were six Democratic Arab American members of Congress - and now we have one Democrat and four Republicans. They voted three to one for Barack Obama in 2008, and would probably do the same in 2012."

You mentioned that the Obama administration has been insensitive in several cases.

Zogby: "They've not been perfect at all ... Guantanamo was one, torture was another - and we are not there yet, and he certainly has the intention to make change. The profiling after the Christmas bombing was an example of an instinctive response that was wrong; ultimately this administration listened to us and changed the policy. It's a big difference in comparison to the Bush era."

Last week President Obama delivered his third address to the Muslim world, in Jakarta. Did it work?

"If you look at the three speeches he made - the Cairo speech, the Ankara speech and the Indonesia speech - they really were three separate speeches to three separate worlds. I think he's been effective in some parts of the world, and has been unable to achieve real successes in other parts of the world. And in the Arab world there is not yet success, but there is an intention to create success. What a speech does is to create the direction. In our most recent polling, a significant part said it's too early to tell; [Obama] still has time."