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Do Americans Fail to Listen to a Variety of 'Arab Voices'?

posted on: Nov 18, 2010

James Zogby, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute (AAI), joked that he is “the son of a Lebanese merchant, and I’ve got a book and it’s for sale.” But in the rest of his speech to the World Affairs Council of Charlotte on Monday, he got serious about the message of that book.

“Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters,” based on polling by Zogby International (of which James’ brother, John, is president), hopes to change “how we write about and talk about other parts of the world,” he said. You “start with the hard data,” and tell the story that amplifies that data. That differs from what Zogby called the “bad science” books, guilty of “taking an observation and elevating it into a conclusion.”

“Arabs don’t hate Americans,” he said the polls show, despite what many Americans believe. “They don’t like our policies,” he said, and they “don’t like the way we treat them.”

Since 1985, Zogby and AAI have promoted the civic and political empowerment of Americans of Arab descent. He has also served as co-convener of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee (NDECC), an umbrella organization of Democratic Party leaders of European and Mediterranean descent, and in 2001, was appointed to the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee.
“We live in a world of stereotypes,” Zogby told members of the Council, a nonprofit and nonpartisan outreach program of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and its Office of International Programs. “We’ve been getting it wrong because we just don’t know.”

Myths that guide our thinking include the idea that Arabs are “all angry” and “all think the same.” You can talk about Arabs and Muslims in a way you can’t imagine talking about any other religion or group of people, he said. “Our rhetoric has created a reality for us where it almost makes sense,” which could explain the Oklahoma law – recently approved by more than 70 percent of voters — that bans state courts from considering Shariah law when rendering decisions. (The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which calls the measure a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S.

Constitution, filed a lawsuit to block implementation of the law; a federal judge has temporarily blocked it.)

While Zogby blames pop culture images for some stereotyping, he credits American corporations for their “brilliant work” spreading the country’s brand around the world. “People go to Starbucks not because the coffee’s better,” he said, but because they “want a little piece of America.”

World Affairs Council member Osama Wazan, 46, who goes by the name Sam, described himself as an Arab American, “more emphasis on American,” and pushed back in his question following the speech. In a website promoting the book he told me he’s writing — “The First Moderate Muslim” — Wazan says that he’s “fed up with battles and atrocities powered by religious figures, adopted by politicians, and implemented by militia leaders.”

To Zogby, Wazan, who immigrated from Lebanon when he was 25, described a sometimes harrowing childhood, “alternating between stairwells and the shelter,” and asked, “What should we take pride in?”

Zogby answered that “the trauma of Lebanon has been great and the resiliency of Lebanon has been great,” and said the country’s political system needs to be reformed.

Later, Wazan lamented that “the religious aspect of our upbringing was dominant.” However, he praised Zogby as “obviously a brilliant guy,” with knowledge of “what’s happening and what people think” in the Middle East. Like others at the speech, he thought it was helpful that Zogby is asking questions about misunderstandings across culture, religion — even if there are no easy answers.

Zogby, for his part, says he hopes to continue the dialogue, and planned to meet with members of the Jewish community in Charlotte after his talk.

Mary C. Curtis
Politics Daily