Opinion matters

Shibley Telhami presented his new book, The World Through Arab Eyes; Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, at Brookings this week. BBC’s Kim Ghattas was quick to offer an alternative title: “Everything you want to know about the Middle East but aren’t getting from the headlines.”

Telhami explained that Arab public opinion is now the source of real insight into the layers of conflict spread across the Middle East.  The Arab uprisings have increased its importance. The essential theme emerging after the first uprisings of 2011 was Arab identity. Understanding identity is central to understanding public opinion.

While domestic issues and authoritarian abuses may have triggered the Arab uprisings, foreign policy was also important.  The years leading up to the Arab uprising were not inherently different from decades past in regards to domestic and economic woes. But Arabs are angry about the collapse of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations in 2000, the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq war and the Gaza wars.  It was a strikingly violent decade (and more) in international relations.

Arab populations are angry because their leaders and governments were powerless to stand up to foreign invasions and defend the wishes of their citizens.  Arab identity and sovereignty were compromised.  Arab leaders played no role in stopping it.

Arab public option polls during this period were striking. One question, “who is the leader you admire most in the world?” is a crucial lens for seeing how Arabs judged and chose leaders at that time. Jacques Chirac, Hassan Nasrallah, Hugo Chaves and even Saddam Hussein were the most common answers. Telhami attributes these responses to each leader’s strong and defiant role in foreign affairs. Post Arab spring polls show Turkey’s Prime Minister, Erdogan, as one of the most popular leaders for his assertive stance in foreign policy and his ability to stand up for Turkey’s identity.

Telhami observes that identification with the state has declined while identification with Islam has increased. The adage, “you are what you have to defend” applies here, as Muslims see Islam as under assault. Increased identification as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Arab’ is also correlated with the rise in transnational media in the Middle East. Arabs are associating with others outside their national borders. This has important implications for the relationship between people and their governments, which have to take into account public opinion that extends beyond their borders.

The discussion of transnational Arab identity naturally led to a discussion of Israel and Palestine. For Arabs, the Palestinian issue reflects decades of painful defeats and remains a humiliating reminder of their powerlessness. It as an open wound.

Kim Ghattas disagreed that the Palestinian issue was central to Arab identity. She thought the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has taken a back seat now that people finally have a chance to change their domestic situation. In the past, Palestinian issues were used as a rallying cry for Arab autocrats trying to suppress and distract their own people. Finally, Arabs have a say within their own country, and they are going to speak.

There is no going back. Public opinion has been empowered.

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