Americans lack a basic understanding of the Middle East

Americans remain uninformed about Middle East issues, according to an expert on the region who spoke in Chestnut Hill on Monday.

James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, told an audience in Chestnut Hill this week that in 2003 “only 11 percent of Americans could find Iraq on a map.” By 2009, that number had only grown to 37 percent he added.

Perhaps most startling is the partisan discrepancy in Americans’ attitudes towards Arabs; Zogby reports that while 73 percent of Democrats say they don’t know enough about the Arab world and need to know more, 82 percent of Republicans say they know enough and don’t need to know more.

Zogby sees dire consequences in such actions. “Our education is so low, our exposure is so little, it puts us at risk politically,” he says, describing what he sees as an “abysmal ignorance of the realities of Egypt today.”

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The two prevailing images of Arabs on American television, Zogby says, are terrorists and oil sheikhs, and “that has become for many people what the Arab is.” In fact, he maintains, “The American view of the Arab world has been shaped by myth.”

Zogby spoke at the Woodmere Art Museum as part of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival Speaker Series to promote his new book Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters.

His book (and his Washington-based institute) seeks to change such American perceptions of Arabs, in part by simply providing information based on randomized polls of Arab people living in different countries throughout the Middle East. His results are often surprising.

In Zogby International polls, a company founded by his brother John Zogby, Arabs indicated that their primary concerns are the economy, education, and health care – worries that are echoed in American responses to the same question.

Rather than being radicalized fundamentalists obsessed with religious programming as so often depicted by American policymakers and media outlets, Zogby finds that television shows watched most often by people he polled are movies, followed by game shows and reality shows such as “Arabs Got Talent.” In Saudi Arabia, he describes a culture in which American businesses are thriving, mentioning a shopping center featuring Saks Fifth Avenue, Planet Hollywood, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Starbucks.

Zogby wants to bridge the cultural divide between Arabs and Americans, and he thinks the key to doing so is through education and listening.

Zogby’s visit to Chestnut Hill was somewhat of a homecoming. He lived in Mt. Airy in the 1960s and early 70s when he completed his doctorate in comparative religions at Temple University.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, Zogby was a guest on WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane offering his views on the situation in Egypt.

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