Saban Center Wants Your Opinion

Interesting findings from the opinion poll firm Zogby International today which in collaboration with the University of Maryland, is releasing its “2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll“. It’s a survey conducted from June 29 to July 20, 2010 in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The poll is released on Thursday at the Brookings Institute in Washington by Shibley Telhami, the principal investigator, a fellow from the university of Maryland. Telhami coincidently also works for the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The Saban Center is a well known pro-Israel think tank within the Brookings Institute, founded in 2002 by influential American-Israeli lobbyist Haim Saban, former music manager turned media mogul. The Center is headed by Martin Indyk, a professional Israel apologist and former research director at the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. Indyk was recruited by Saban himself as the head of the Center 8 years ago.

For what it’s worth, and with the aforementioned sponsors in mind, I think it’s interesting to see what the poll has got to say.

We learn that the positive enthusiasm that accompanied the election of President Obama, is in fact dwindling, both at the level of the popular perception of the person of the U.S. president as well as at the level of his foreign policy. This is hardly surprising given the toothless stance of the American administration in face of unwavering Israeli policies of occupation, expropriation and settlement.

Conversely, the poll shows that a majority of interviewees still think that the one policy of the Obama administration they are most pleased with is his attitudes towards Islam. Not clear what that means exactly. “Attitudes towards Islam” is quite a large notion. Have interviewees been asked to consider “collateral damages” in Afghanistan or have they been enjoined to stick to the president’s rhetorical niceties? Apart from Obama’s short-lived inclination to pressure Israel to stop (freeze) the contruction of Jewish settlements in occupied land, and the change in rhetoric when dealing with Islam and Muslims as opposed to the previous administration, I frankly don’t see what decidedly inspired that choice. But it is not a big surprise though: I think the image of Obama reaching out to the Muslims during his rather nice Cairo speech, still reverberates across the region and will continue for some time to come.

Interesting also is the apparently diminishing importance the question of withdrawal of American troops from the Arabian peninsula now seems to have. According to the poll only 35% (versus 50 two years ago) consider this to be an important policy the U.S. should undertake in order to improve their image in the region as opposed to other steps such as to help broker an Israel-Palestine peace agreement (54%), withdraw from Iraq (45%) or stop aiding Israel (43%).

Another finding has caught my attention. According to the the poll a considerable proportion of people interviewed (a little more than half) still have “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” views of American people (30% and 27% respectively). A survey commissioned by the U.S. House International Relations Committee and conducted by Pew Global Attitudes 5 years ago reached similar conclusions. This suggests that the Obama charm offensive hasn’t succeeded yet in decidedly conquering hearts and minds in the region. The Zogby poll shows, also, almost no inclination in younger people to view the U.S. more favorably.

Interestingly, according to the poll, more Arabs seem to question the invulnerability of Israel. A majority thinks Israel acts on its own and influences U.S.’s foreign policy in the region, other than the other way around. Indeed fewer think Israel is a tool in the hands of the Americans.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal outweighs Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as the most admired Palestinian leader.

A chapter in the poll is called “Empathy”. It starts by asking about feelings evoked by watching movies and programs on the holocaust. According to the poll more than half of the people interviewed say they resent those movies and programs since “they bring sympathy toward Israel and the Jews at the expense of the Palestinians”. Interviewees seem to have been given the choice between either one of three: I resent, I empathize or I have mixed feelings (without specifying what those mixed feeling are). Dangerous thing with polls is you can make them say whatever you want them to say. Just cook the questions carefully enough not to let room for nuance and common sense et voilà! Those who empathize with Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis but who still think Zionists are using this human tragedy to justify the horrific ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, won’t count on this poll. The final result claims for example that 0% of Moroccans asked have no empathy whatsoever with Jews who suffered during the holocaust, 15% have mixed feelings and an astounding 85% resent watching works that commemorate the holocaust (?).

One of the most unlikely outcomes the poll comes up with is the apparent love affair Arabs are having with France. It is quite dazzling especially given the current state of affairs. Apparently Arabs would like to see France rule the world and offer them refuge if they had to flee their home countries. They also seem to see France as the one country that plays the most constructive role in the region. Give me a break! I don’t know what the questions asked looked like in this particular department but I would be more than careful not to draw any serious conclusions out of these outcomes. They just seem unrelated to reality. Either questions were inaccurately asked or the sample was non representative.

And then comes the one result that looks to me quite consistent with what seems to be prevalent in the Arab street at the moment. To the question “what world leader do you admire the most”, unsurprisingly Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes first (20%) well ahead of Hugo Chavez who comes second (13%) and (unadvisedly) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad third (12%).

A large proportion of Moroccans interviewed seem to think that government policy should be conducted according to what is good for Islam first. Another majority (61%) says Islam is what defines Moroccan identity. I’m aware of the conservative nature of the Moroccan society, but this comes nonetheless as a surprise. Conversely I was happy but not completely surprised to see that the Lebanese surveyed were more inclined to define themselves as citizens first and think government policy should be motivated by secular and national concerns.

Finally, interviewees were asked about their primary source of news, their use of the Internet, the language they are more likely to use while browsing the Internet and the channels they might tune into for entertainment. Whilst I can perfectly understand why people might be surveyed about their sources of entertainement, I also consider it legitimate to question the motives behind this kind of polls, the way they are conducted and the use made of the data collected, given the activities of the major sponsor of this survey, namely Haim Saban, and his unambiguous and fanatic support for Israel.

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2 thoughts on “Saban Center Wants Your Opinion

  1. “A large proportion of Moroccans interviewed seem to think that government policy should be conducted according to what is good for Islam first. Another majority (61%) says Islam is what defines Moroccan identity. I’m aware of the conservative nature of the Moroccan society, but this comes nonetheless as a surprise.”

    Not surprising in the least! What is surprising to me, is how out of touch the laws and policies are with the society at large. Moroccans are being secularized like there’s no tomorrow (or yaoum al kiyama to be exact).

  2. habib,
    Are you suggesting the Moroccan government should play along Moroccan society’s conservative inclinations and transform the country into some kind of Sunni theology?

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