James Zogby’s Column
President Bush got it right. After a Gallup poll released last week showing that a substantial majority of Muslims have unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S., the President responded “We’ve got work to do…There is no question that the United States must do a better job telling the compassionate side of the American story.”
On February 26, 2002, Gallup released the results of a nine nation poll of Muslim and predominantly Muslim countries. There were 5 Arab countries covered in the study (Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Morocco). Also included were Turkey, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan.
While the complete study covered a wide range of issues and actually presented a rather nuanced view of Muslim attitudes, press coverage of the Gallup company’s release only focused on the poll’s most sensational and negative results. The result was a public reaction blow to the Muslim world.
The top line results of the poll that became the subject of press discussions were:
Muslim attitudes toward the U.S.: 22% favorable, 53% unfavorable;
Muslim attitudes toward President Bush: 17% favorable, 39% unfavorable;
Were the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Arabs?: 20% agree, 74% disagree;
Is the U.S. military action in Afghanistan morally justifiable?: 9% agree; 77% disagree.
The headlines generated by these results reflected shock and some anger. Two front page headlines, for example, read: “Poll: Muslim World Condemns U.S. War” and “Many in Islamic World doubt Arabs behind September 11.”
For three days my office was consumed with the need to respond to press inquiries and hostile emails generated by the poll.
Like the President, we made it clear that, if anything, this gap in perception establishes the need for the U.S. to address the Muslim world and its concerns. We also noted that these negative numbers are mirrored by the equally negative attitudes Americans now appear to have toward many Muslim countries. We further reminded reporters that not only Muslims have unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S. Recent studies show that the U.S. has image problems in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well.
Since we have polled in the Middle East, I was also concerned that some of the data did not coincide with what I know of the region. For example, the extremely negative attitudes that Gallup found in Kuwait–almost twice as negative as all of the countries included in the poll–simply didn’t ring true. After a closer examination of the details of the poll, I began to see serious methodological problems. For example, there was an exceptionally large number of non-Kuwaitis included in the Kuwait numbers. Gallup finally admitted this fact after two days and acknowledged that this was responsible for the very anti-U.S. bent in that country’s results. While it was useful for the record, it came too late to spare Kuwait from two days of extremely harsh negative attacks.
That was not the only concern I raised during my many interviews. I also expressed surprise with the limited choice of data on which both Gallup and the press chose to focus their attention. It appeared designed to paint a negative picture. My concern was heightened when I read the full Gallup report. There one finds the following quite supportable observations:
“The people of Islamic nations also believe that Western nations do not respect Arab or Islamic values, do not support Arab causes, and do not exhibit fairness toward Arabs, Muslims, or in particular, the situation in Palestine…The people of these Islamic cultures say that the West pays little attention to their situation, does not attempt to help these countries, and makes few attempts to communicate or to create cross cultural bridges.”
The report further states:
“There are, however, strong suggestions from the Arab and Islamic side of the equation about what to do. The one cry to the West that seems to be most dominant: trust, respect and understand us. The people of the Islamic world say that the West should moderate its attitudes and exhibit less prejudice toward Arabs and Muslims, that the West should show more respect and should not underestimate the people of the Islamic world. The people of the Islamic world say that the West should increase its level of economic concern and support around the world, should moderate its stance on the Palestinian issue, should attempt more dialogue and cultural interaction, and should make much stronger attempts to understand what the Islamic religion is and what it stands for. There is little sign that the people of Islamic nations perceive that these things are happening now, but the responses in this survey identify many of the issues that the Islamic people would suggest be addressed in order to repair United States and Western relations with this part of the world.”
In making these observations, Gallup presents an important road map for the Administration to follow. Pay attention to Muslim concerns, open a respectful dialogue and seek understanding–if these become the focus of our attention, real change can occur.
For our part, we are in the process of developing a number of important studies of Arab and Muslim opinions. The negative impressions created by this Gallup poll cannot be left to stand unchallenged. It is imperative that we counter with hard data and a precise prescription for change. The good news is that, when we informed the major networks that we were preparing these more comprehensive analyses, they assured us of prime time coverage.
Indeed, the President got it right: “We’ve got work to do”. His words apply not only to the need for a more effective U.S. public diplomacy effort-they are relevant to us as well. We’ve all got work to do.
Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.