April 15, 2003

Zogby Lecture Asks 'What Arabs Think'

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“What Arabs Think” was the focus of both yesterday’s lecture by James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute based in Washington, D.C., as well as the title of his new book on current public opinion in the international Arab community. Nearly 75 students, faculty and community members sacrificed part of the sunny afternoon to hear this renowned political leader of the Arab community speak in Goldwin Smith Hall.

“Who are the Arabs?” Zogby posed as the major question to arise in America soon after Sept. 11. Suddenly, he said, the tragedy had brought the Arab and Western sides of the world closer together as each side realized that it knew relatively little about the thoughts and views of the other.

He claimed that this called for a dialogue between members of the two groups, “but a lot of people were filling in this gap who didn’t know the issues.”

He listed numerous examples of the connections between the Western and Arab worlds.

“This is a tragedy because over 500,000 young Saudis work in America, half of Saudi Arabia’s cabinet were educated in America … yet all of that and we didn’t even know each other,” he said.

“We poll to get a picture of what Americans are thinking,” Zogby added, but he felt that no one seemed to know what opinions Arabs held on similar topics. In response to this need, Zogby decided to survey the Arab world to discover what they thought about themselves, Americans and the foreign policy relationships between America and Arab nations.

The survey was conducted by Zogby International, an established polling institute based in Utica, N.Y., and founded by Zogby’s brother John. The poll consisted of 3,800 face-to-face interviews with individuals from Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Morocco. The resulting data was then published in Zogby’s book What Arabs Think.

“The results defined a different world than most people would think,” he noted, especially in the many similarities between American and Arabic personal values. The top three personal values listed were quality and security of jobs, protection for their faith and security for their families.

In response to questions about foreign countries, “they liked France … and they liked Canada.”

Although they approved of Americans’ values, they disapproved highly on questions about American foreign policy. One week before the war began, Zogby resurveyed these same questions, and this time all reactions were negative.

“It’s almost as if you put the word ‘America’ in a sentence, and it immediately drags the whole thing down,” he said. “To understand the Arab world is to understand in the most significant, defining way, as it looks at the rest of the world, is a sense of being partly left behind and partly out of control.”

Zogby also touched on the current war in Iraq.

“The danger is that we win this war and don’t learn anything from it,” he said.

Zogby believes that the United States needs to foster a new kind of national political discourse. Without discussion, he said, “we will not close the gap, it’ll only get bigger.”

One unique move Zogby made in this direction was at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he holds a visiting professorship. One week before the war in Iraq reached Baghdad, he facilitated a satellite link-up between a lecture hall of 150 American college students and 100 Baghdad University students. The biggest difference between the two groups, he commented, was that while the Americans had a freedom to debate and disagree, the Iraqis had experiences to draw on that the Americans had never been forced to face.

“We’re not in Washington anymore, we’re in Baghdad, and there’s lots more to be done,” Zogby said.

Before closing, he opened the floor to a question-and-answer session. Responses to the lecture were mainly positive.

Rebecca Yagerman ’03 said, “I feel that a lot of other speakers aren’t as focused. His goal was really to educate us.”

University Assembly member Umair Khan ’03 said, “I feel it’s extremely important that someone as famous and well-respected as [Zogby] come and speak on issues that many are unaware of, and it’s critical that people become more aware.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Arab Students Association.

Archived article by Amber Parker