I recently addressed the 11th World Islamic Banking Conference in Bahrain on how Arabs and Muslims are perceived in the West. In preparation for my presentation, Zogby International (ZI) conducted a December poll to discover what Americans think about doing business in the region.
The results were mixed, but on some key issues there was a disturbing downward trend.
For example, while favorable attitudes towards "Arabs" are now up to 55% (an increase of 10 points in two years), this must be balanced against a significant increase in negative attitudes towards Muslims. In just the past few years these unfavorable attitudes have doubled to include more than two in five Americans.
Maybe more disturbing is the fact that when asked if they wanted to learn more about Arabs or Muslims, more than half indicated no interest in learning more about Muslims. This contrasts with two-thirds who indicated a desire to learn more only two years ago.
All of this appears to reflect the success of the continuing negative information campaign against Islam that has been reinforced by outrageous killings carried out by groups claiming to act in the name of their faith. As a result, although most Americans still really do not know Islam, they now think that they do.
On the matter of doing business in the Middle East, results are also mixed.
Majorities feel that the region is important to US security and economic interests. Almost two-thirds of all Americans think that doing business with Arab nations "promotes US interests," but only 55% think that doing business with Muslim nations does so.
When measuring the Middle East region against five other regional markets (Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia), the Middle East comes in fifth place, just ahead of Central Asia. The Middle East also has the highest negative rating of any of those six regions, with two of five saying that it is not a desirable location for US business opportunities.
The most disturbing results came when Americans were asked if they would be more or less likely inclined to do business with an entity if they knew it was Muslim-owned. 40% said they would be less likely to patronize such a business against only 23% who indicated that they would be more likely to support a Muslim-owned business.
Clearly for the Islamic banking industry which has indicated an interest in opening branches or banks in the US, increasing their already substantial investments in the US and attracting more US business to the Middle East, these poll results are important to consider.
The challenge that must be addressed is what can be done to change these attitudes that have come to define the post-9/11 environment.
First, it is important to note that most of the positive and negative attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are perceptions, based on "received knowledge" and not "acquired knowledge." They are, therefore, to some degree, "soft" attitudes that can be changed.
Americans might think they know about Arabs and Islam because of what they’ve heard on television or read in newspapers. What our polling tells us is that, despite this, many are still open to new information. Thus far, the Arab side has failed to directly engage in a substantial effort to undo the effects of 9/11 and the negative campaign against Islam that followed. As I’ve noted time and again, the battle over ideas is like a football game-if one side is playing and the other is not, it’s easy to predict who will win. Despite having lost precious time, it’s not too late to begin.
I offered the conference three specific suggestions:
Pay attention to the problem that exists, not the one you think exists.
The biggest problem facing Arabs and Muslims in the US is that most Americans have never been to the region, don’t know any Arabs from the region (not Arab Americans) and have had their attitudes shaped by decades of negative stereotypes projected by media and popular culture.
The good news is that Americans who have been to the Middle East or who know Arabs have significantly more positive attitudes than those who have not.
In addition, our focus groups tell us that American aren’t asking about the theology of Islam, the beliefs of Muslims, or the policy positions of Middle East governments. The most common concerns are "What are they like?" and "Are they like us?"
Americans wants to meet Arabs. Paid advertisements and policy speeches can’t replace real encounters. And Arab Americans and American Muslims can’t and should not be seen as substitutes for Arab citizens, men and women, young and old.
Delegations need to come to the US and meet their counterparts-not elites in Washington and New York-but Americans in cities across the US.
And it can’t be a one shot deal. It must be sustained and done according to a campaign plan designed to inform and change attitudes.
Change will not occur overnight. After all, it took years to get into this hole, it will take long hard work to get out.
Pay attention to people and what the polls tell us.
Businessmen and women, especially, should understand the need to study and understand the market as a prerequisite to any investment effort.
Changing ideas is no different than selling a product.
For example, our polling shows us that young people (18-29 years of age), women, Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans (the last three groups constitute almost one-third of the US) are the most receptive to new information about Arabs and Muslims. And they have told us what they want to know. In polling, they have indicated that they want to meet Arabs and Muslims, women and young people.
From my decades of involvement in the Middle East, I know that there are many enterprising and creative young men and women who would, if encouraged, make a real contribution to changing US attitudes.
Pay attention to other potential assets that should be mobilized.
Any bridge-building effort will require a two-sided effort. It will require mobilizing assets on both sides of the divide. The Arab world has plenty of them in the US, all underutilized at present-Americans who have worked in the Middle East, US businesses who have benefited from the region, and Arab American who are well-placed in American businesses and political life. Efforts must be made to mobilize them and enlist their support. They can arrange for visits of touring Arab delegations and perform important follow-up to the visits.
These were but a few of the suggestions I offered. I closed with the following advice: Such an undertaking won’t be easy, but it is necessary. It is both unacceptable and dangerous to continue with "business as usual." The misconceptions, real as they are now, will only worsen if left alone.