Telhami: The World Through Arab Eyes

“Understanding identity is the key to understanding opinion, not the other way around,” said Shibley Telhami, author of the book, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, at an IPI Beyond the Headlines event on June 27th, 2013.

“In essence, when we do public opinion polling, we’re really trying to understand the framework in the context of which people make evaluations,” Mr. Telhami continued. “That framework is very much reflective of some notion of core identity that we have to distill and understand and it is that evolving identity that we have to try and capture through our work.”

In The World Through Arab Eyes, Mr. Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland, reveals the hearts and minds of a people often misunderstood but ever more central to the increasingly globalized world. He draws upon a decade’s worth of original polling data, probing the depths of the Arab psyche to analyze the driving forces and emotions of the Arab uprisings and the next phase of Arab politics.

In his polling throughout the Middle East, every year Mr. Telhami asks the people to name two leaders they admired most outside their own country. He said that in 2011 in Saudi Arabia, after the Arab uprisings, the most frequently mentioned name was Saddam Hussein.

“What I was driven by, at the time, was the thought that, wait a second, yes of course it is a world of states and governments and authoritarian rulers who have repressive capacities, who can get away with a lot, but there are consequences and we don’t quite measure them, we don’t understand them,” he explained.

With the information revolution, Mr. Telhami said, public opinion became even more essential in understanding that dynamic and how people’s core identities are affected.

“There’s no way you can understand how tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people [went] into the streets without understanding this new instrument of mobilization, the information revolution. There’s no question it had a huge impact,” he asserted.

During his polling in 2005, Mr. Telhami found that not enough people said the Internet was the prime source of news for him to do any relevant statistical analysis, but that rapidly changed in the following years with the swift expansion of Internet usage.

Although he acknowledged that issues such as poverty, repression, and lack of food were important, Mr. Telhami argued that a central part of the driving forces behind the Arab uprisings was foreign policy.

“What you find that is differentiated about that decade [preceding the Arab uprisings] is humiliating foreign policy experiences… If you want to understand this pursuit of dignity, it is not in the relationship between rulers and ruled. It is in the relationship between them and the outside world,” he declared.

He took the example of the Iraq War. Although 90% of people in the Middle East were opposed to the war and thought that it went against their vital interests, he explained, their governments could not stop it and in some cases even cooperated.

Mr. Telhami said that in looking at the past decade and around the time of the Iraq War, many Arabs admired leaders such as former French President Jacques Chirac, Hassan Nasrullah of Hezobllah and Hugo Chavez because they were defiant to the U.S. President Chirac, for example, hosted Yasser Arafat on his deathbed and stood up to President George W. Bush on the Iraq War.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also gained popularity in the Arab world after the war in Gaza and the Turkish flotilla confrontations with Israel, Mr. Telhami said. “Turkey did emerge, after the Arab uprising, as a sort of model – when you ask Egyptians, for example, [to] name a country that you want your country to look like among the following, given Western countries, Middle Eastern countries, they chose Turkey more than any other country.”

Noting a key finding in his research, he explained the significance of identity further. “Aggregately, over time, there was a decline in the affinity of the state and there was an increase in transnational identity, particularly Muslim identity, over the decade,” he said. As a result, he found that Arabs were identifying with people outside their own state boundaries, and that half or more said that their governments should serve the interests of Muslims and Arabs.

Mr. Telhami went on to highlight the importance of Palestine in the Arab world, arguing, “No issue matters more in representing their outlook in the world, the foreign policy world, than the issue of Palestine, which I call the prism of pain through which Arabs see the outside world.”

For him, the situation in Palestine is a metaphor for the region’s collective sense of humiliation vis-a-vis the outside world, and that the anger with Israel translates into anger towards the U.S.

But even with the stable support for a two-state solution, Mr. Telhami noted that an increasing majority on both sides, Arabs and Israelis, thinks it will never happen.

“Yes, this is a central issue,” he concluded. “Yes, if it’s addressed, it doesn’t solve everything in the Middle East, but it will certainly help a lot. And yes, people want it, they don’t even see an alternative to it, but they don’t think it’s going to happen, and they’re looking for someone to make them believe that it might.”

The event was moderated by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

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