Center for Strategic Communication


Shibley Telhami has long been interested not only in what mass Arab publics think, but how their attitudes affect the foreign policies of Arab regimes and how they should affect American policy in the Middle East. His new book, The World Through Arab Eyes, offers a masterful summation of more than a decade of his systematic public opinion research across the Arab world. A few weeks ago I sat down with my former dissertation advisor in the latest episode of the POMEPS Conversation series to chat about the book, his decade of public opinion polling, and the rapidly unfolding changes in the patterns and impact of Arab public opinion.

Telhami’s work is part of the last decade’s broader move toward the systematic production of real public opinion survey research in the Middle East (such as, for instance, the Arab Barometer survey, which will be the subject of the next POMEPS Conversation). Many problems remain with such survey research, of course, from the challenge of asking politically sensitive questions in authoritarian regimes to the difficulty of generating representative samples to the risk of creating false narratives through the wording or sequence of questions. But Arab survey research has come a long way over the last decade and can no longer be breezily dismissed as "go[ing] so far away from home only to count the cats in Zanzibar."

The Arab uprisings have simultaneously made regional public opinion both more important politically and far less predictable. The uprisings shattered the false confidence that authoritarian regimes could simply ignore, manipulate, or crush inconvenient public attitudes. But it is less obvious what follows. The Arab uprisings might make governments more responsive to public opinion on foreign-policy issues, but the lesson of Mohamed Morsy’s continued adherence to the Camp David treaty with Israel and the blockade of Gaza suggest that uncertain regimes might be even keener to continue domestically unpopular policies in order to maintain international support during difficult internal political struggles.

Meanwhile, Arab attitudes that followed fairly predictable patterns
for years now seem radically in flux. Perhaps the most interesting question here is the long-term effect on regional public opinion of the Syrian war. Telhami’s book expands on his influential concept of the Palestinian issue as the "prism of pain" through which Arabs tend to interpret regional and international politics. I wonder whether Syria has become, or might become, a new such prism of pain, giving meaning and definition to regional identities and divisions. When Israel launched its war against Hezbollah in 2006, most Arabs rallied to Hezbollah’s side despite the sectarian divide or the best efforts of the Saudi media and its other regional rivals. Can anyone predict with confidence whether the same would happen today, given the intense (and well-cultivated) anger over Hezbollah’s role in support of Bashar al-Assad? But while some celebrate this crystallization of regional battle lines
hostile to Iran and Hezbollah, it seems unlikely that new identities
birthed in the
fires of sectarian jihad and regional proxy war will be tolerant or liberal.

There is a lot more in Telhami’s new book to generate discussion, including his counterintuitive reading of the logic of "incitement" in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the relationship between the region’s national and transnational identities. He also discusses Arab attitudes toward the United States in considerable depth — a debate that I will be continuing with Amaney Jamal in Foreign Affairs this week, for those interested. For now, though, enjoy my POMEPS Convo with Telhami and check out his book.