Professor Telhami has earned the distinction of being the foremost American authority on Arab public opinion. This book contains the product of years of diligent and meticulous scholarship on the subject, and it comes at an opportune time. The Arab world is undergoing radical transformation resulting from the unexpected revolts of ordinary people against authoritarian governments that many had viewed as almost permanent fixtures of the political landscape.
The book relies on public-opinion surveys carried out in a number of Arab countries, sometimes over a period of time. This gives us valuable longitudinal data on a number of critical issues. The work is divided into 12 chapters covering substantive issues, from questions of identity to the effects of the information revolution. The author examines the role of Al-Jazeera; issues dealing with incitement, empathy and opinion; how the Arab public views the uprisings; attitudes toward the United States, democracy, women and religion. The author shows over and over again the centrality of the Palestine question to the politics of the region, something he aptly calls the "prism of pain." More than any other issue, this one has shaped Arab perceptions of the world, especially the United States, for a very long time. Professor Telhami also examines regional attitudes toward Iran. Additionally, the author discusses the results of a number of polls of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel, as well as some surveys of American public attitudes toward the region.
Telhami looks closely at issues that are driven by American policy makers and the media. These include topics such as incitement, as well as the question of whether Arab resentment of the United States derives from critical feelings toward American values and whether Arabs make a distinction between the American people and American foreign policy. He expertly chips away at these minor tactical issues and shows that the Arab public is, in fact, quite a bit more discriminating than the American media or the pundits seem to think they are.
Regarding the issue of identity, the author wonders whether the empowerment exhibited in the uprisings sweeping the Arab world and the emergence of governments that are more responsive to the public will are likely to change the way Arabs define themselves. He notes that Arabs tend to identify themselves differently to their countrymen, to other Arabs or to foreigners. In addition, identity shifts over time, and people are likely to have multiple identities simultaneously. Professor Telhami does, however, establish an interesting link between identity and aspirations. His findings reveal that identification with country was superseded by transnational identity (a combination of Arab/Muslim in every year following the Iraq war and in every country except Lebanon).
One may offer a number of explanations for this phenomenon. With some exceptions, Arab governments have largely failed to cultivate identification with country in a meaningful way, opting instead to assert control through repressive mechanisms. Furthermore, the impact of the new information revolution has created mass audiences that identify themselves as Arabs and Muslims. But none of these explanations is entirely convincing. I am not sure that these issues can be clarified solely through public-opinion surveys, no matter how well constructed they are. An additional step is needed. Here is where carefully managed focus-group discussions can yield more enlightening results. They can give us more nuances and convey the strength of alignment with one or another identity.
Indeed, focus-group discussions might also have considerably better results on other matters, such as attitudes toward Iran, the United States, sectarianism, the status of women and the kind of democracy the Arab public aspires to. Nonetheless, Professor Telhami's study is useful and provides an important benchmark for future analysis of public sentiment in this important region.
At the level of interpretation of data, it would be helpful if we knew the difference between the attitudes of the mass public and those of the attentive or informed public. It is, after all, the latter who are more likely to lead demonstrations, vote in elections, write letters to the editor or produce blogs on the Internet. It would also be helpful to have a breakdown by gender. One notes, for example, the heavy presence of young women in demonstrations in Tahrir Square and earlier in Tunisia. Equally important, if not even more so, is analysis based on age differences. In societies where nearly half the population fall under the age of 25, what the youth think becomes absolutely critical.
Karl Mannheim's brilliant classic analysis of the problems of generations would tell us that the Arab youth is, in fact, a generation in itself. As such, it is capable of integrating the past and the present in such a way as to carve out a radically different image of the future. The frames of reference for this generation are the Iraq War and the American occupation, Israel's attacks against Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and the images of drones killing civilians.
Many Americans see themselves and their government as a force for good in the world. By and large, the U.S. media reinforce these self-deluding public frames of reference. Consequently, Americans are always surprised at shows of anger toward U.S. foreign policy. However, when one looks at American foreign policy from the perspective of those on the receiving end, the picture begins to get cloudy. Hence the merit of this book and its important contribution. It demystifies the issues and reveals that the Arab world consists of normal human beings who are capable of seeing through the fog of propaganda and assessing things as they are.
American scholarship on the Arab world is always caught by surprise when major events occur in the region. The Arab Spring is but the latest example of the phenomenon. Assessments are made and recommendations are given, but the story keeps recurring. One of the primary reasons is that mainstream American scholarship is still heavily tied to orientalist modes of thought. Some younger scholars have, however, tried to break away from this mold and produced some remarkable analysis. Unfortunately, their voices are often ignored in the halls of power.
Here lies the real value of Professor Telhami's work. Instead of writing about the Arabs, he offers them an opportunity to have their voices heard and tries to make sense of what they say. The only other arena where an Arab voice comes through is in literature produced by Arab authors. Various works of fiction, more than sterile social science, were able to anticipate the events of the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, these works are rarely translated into English.
Anyone with a serious interest in trying to understand the Arab world and to make sense of the complex issues that frequently occur in it would be well advised to read Shibley Telhami's important book.