‘The World Through Arab Eyes,” by Shibley Telhami could not come at a more opportune time. The recent Arab Spring heralds the beginning of participatory politics in several states of the Middle East and North Africa, and has spurred the unelected monarchs of other countries in the region to launch democratic reforms. What ordinary Arabs think matters more than ever.
Telhami, professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and author of “The Stakes: America in the Middle East,” distills a decade of polls into this essential handbook on average Arabs’ opinions of everything from US foreign policy to Sharia. Along the way, he provides commentary and anecdotes drawn from his own experiences, breaking the monotony of charts and graphs. The book focuses on the years 2003 to 2012, during which time information was gathered from representative population samples in six Arab countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. (Limited polling took place in Israel and the United States.) The precisely worded questions were crafted or approved by Telhami.
Remember the philosophical argument that by observing something you change its nature? Well, asking someone a question could have a similar effect, as the answer might depend on who is asking. Telhami finds this to be the case among many Arabs. In one example, “55 percent of Moroccans said they identify themselves to Americans as Muslim, while only 33 percent say the same to other Arabs.”
THE WORLD THROUGH ARAB EYES
Arabs aren’t monolithic, but they share certain concerns. An overwhelming majority of those Telhami has surveyed say they differ with the United States over policy, but not values (on average, 75 percent versus 10 percent). It should come as no surprise that one policy Arabs have consistently opposed is America’s wholesale support for Israel. What may prove counter-intuitive is that a seemingly fickle tendency, such as shifting one’s admiration from one political leader to another, is often underlain by principle. Because of their sympathy for the Israeli-occupied Palestinians and opposition to US foreign policies, many Arabs will support any leader — Arab or non-Arab, Muslim or non-Muslim, religious or secular — who defends the Palestinians and defies the United States.
At various points, Telhami, who is of Israeli Arab origin, exaggerates the influence of Egypt; for example, he maintains that the outcome of the current power struggle in that country will affect its neighbors’ internal dynamics. He also sometimes strays from analysis into advocacy and even mild apologetics. Indeed, the argument that “[n]othing in Arab or Muslim culture or religion inherently prevents women’s advancement” reflects wishful thinking.
However, the author captures nuance. Last year, 66 percent of Egyptians surveyed said they wanted Islamic law to be the basis of Egyptian law. But of this group, “only 17 percent said that they prefer applying Sharia literally, including the penal code, while 83 percent said they prefer applying the spirit of Sharia but with adaptation to modern times.”
Telhami’s polling was conducted largely by Zogby International and JZ Analytics. (For polling in the United States and Israel, the legwork was carried out by Knowledge Networks and the Dahaf Institute, respectively.) The margin of error ranges from plus or minus 4.6 to 1.58 percentage points.
Arguably the most profound of the subtle yet critical variations in perception that Telhami highlights proves unexpected, as it concerns Americans’ opinions of Islam and Muslims. Of a representative sample of Americans polled in 2011, a majority (61 percent) perceived Islam unfavorably. Nevertheless, “a negative view of Islam didn’t directly translate into a dislike for its adherents: Nearly 50 percent of Americans expressed positive views of Muslims.”
Why is this important? Maintaining social harmony in diverse societies requires a commitment on the part of disparate neighbors that, even as they reserve the right to criticize one another’s religions and cultures, they will judge one another based on actions, not affiliations. “Deed Before Creed” is what some of its proponents have dubbed this rigorous distinction. That many Americans distinguish between a religion they dislike and its followers is encouraging. The Arab world, where religious minorities such as Christians suffer discrimination and Sunni-Shiite animosity threatens to rend the social fabric of several countries, stands in desperate need of such a sober and hardheaded management of bias.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at