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James Zogby of the Arab American Institute discusses the results of a large survey conducted by the BBC in 11 Arab countries among 25,000 responders. The results show interesting developments in Arab public opinion on matters of religion and politics

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

A new survey from the BBC News Arabic Survey and the research network Arab Barometer was published a few weeks back that reveals the complexity of thinking in the Arab world around politics, religion, sexuality, views of foreign powers and their leaders. The survey collected answers from 25 thousand people from 11 Arab countries and compared them with the answers to similar questions they had done six years before. It’s complex. I went to look, as I found that our guest did as well, to find what was behind these numbers and couldn’t find them. But we’ll talk about that as well.

And to analyze the meaning of all of that and this survey we are joined once again by James Zogby, who is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute. And Jim, good to have you back with us. Welcome.

JAMES ZOGBY Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER So it really was a fascinating survey to me. I mean, let’s begin with–before we get into the complexity of the things you couldn’t find and how that played out against some of the work you’ve done already in your work–the increased secularization in the Arab world, different in different parts, but we’ll talk about that in a moment. But talk a bit about that, because we talked about that before we went on the air together a bit and that seemed to me the one thing that really struck me more than almost anything else in this poll.

JAMES ZOGBY What struck me was the headline of the piece, which said, “Are Arabs turning against religion?” And I, having polled on these issues now for a number of years, actually–you mentioned the Arab American Institute, but I also am the managing director of Zogby Research Services. And people can go to our website and find all of our polling there.

MARC STEINER And it’s good polling. I’ve done that many times before.

JAMES ZOGBY We’ve polled on religion rather extensively and we find yes, that there is a number of people in each of the countries who say religion plays very little role in their lives. But there also is a growing number of people who say that religion is defining their lives and is central to their daily activity. And so, in the one country for example that stood out, Tunisia, there was a tremendous growth it showed of people saying that they were secular. But in Tunisia, there’s also 45 percent say religion is very important in their lives. And remember, Tunisia is the single largest per capita recruitment source for Daesh, for the Islamic State. Tunisia has a real problem. So there’s a polarization taking place on both sides of the continuum and the data wasn’t there for me to find it, so I was a little frustrated.

MARC STEINER But from what you’ve seen and from your own research, what does that say to you? I mean, one of the things that struck me–and I’ll just throw this in there as part of the conversation–is that the places where it seems there was a greater growth in terms of this polling in secularization was in North Africa; not in Sudan, not within new Iraq, not in the Palestinian territories, but in the former colonies of France. So that kind of stuck out at me.

JAMES ZOGBY Let’s pull this apart. The countries specifically that look big; Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are the ones you’re pointing to–

MARC STEINER And Lebanon as well, right?

JAMES ZOGBY Tunisia, very large. And Tunisia is important because of Habib Bourguiba–partly France, but also Bourguiba, who had a very secularist approach to governance. And I remember going to a conference in Tunisia about 15 years ago and was struck by the fact that you had women there in large numbers really frightened about the prospect of the Islamicization of the state because they didn’t want to lose their rights. At the same time, you’ve got this other problem in Tunisia of alienated youth joining these groups. And even during the Bourguiba period and during the Ben Ali period, you had underground Islamic Brotherhood movements growing, and they actually became the governing party for a while after the revolution. Algeria, again, remember in the 90s, you had the Islamic parties winning and then a very bloody civil war, a hundred thousand killed. And today, the secularists are ruling, but the Islamic parties haven’t gone away and they’re in very strong numbers. Libya, also. And this thing, that’s not French, it was Italian, but Libya is also deeply divided, and you have a civil war taking place in Libya right now.

So it’s a more complex story than the data here reveals. The other situation I noted is that in a number of the countries, there was a growth in the numbers of people who said that they were secular. But if you look at it, it’s between 5 to 10 percent growth, that’s within the margin of error of this poll. And so, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. What I do know is that there is a split taking place in several Arab countries with people on the one hand becoming more religious and on the other hand, partly in reaction to that, partly in reaction to globalization, becoming more secular. And so, you have a division in the ranks taking place.

MARC STEINER So it was interesting to me–and I’d like to talk just for a minute about this–when I looked at the results from the occupied territories, from the Palestinian territories, the secular numbers were much lower, the religious numbers were much higher, and kind of very fundamentalist views came out of the parts of the research around women and other things in the Palestinian territories. And I was really interested in that, because you also have the sense, at least you think that there are a lot of secularized Palestinians who have been part of the struggle for last 50, 60 years. So where does the reality live, and what does this tell us?

JAMES ZOGBY The reality is that the occupation has created an oppressive environment in which people turn inward. And one of the ways they turn inward is toward traditional culture. One might argue that the more secular side of the Palestinian movement is the Palestinian citizens in Israel. That’s where a real vanguard of the Palestinian movement, I believe, is growing. But within the occupied territories, people have been beaten down. Institutions have been broken and the Palestinian Authority has become more the paid sheriff governing the occupation than it is the old PLO leadership of the National Resistance Movement. And so, what you have is that people in their towns and in their villages are turning inward and turning backward to family, tribe, and in this case, also religion.

MARC STEINER I mean, there’s no mistaking that. If you look at the other data in this thing, at least the stuff that came out, when you look at how the United States and Israel are viewed by these countries, the countries that are more directly affected by Israel in the immediate area trust the Israelis less than the Americans, though in other places, the Americans have large numbers of being mistrusted and those who are further away from where the Israeli Palestinian conflict is taking place.

JAMES ZOGBY We worked really hard to earn mistrust and we’ve done a great job of it. Even countries that have not been directly affected by Israel–I mean, you look at Lebanon or you look at countries that have directly suffered from Israeli policy, that’s one thing. But the issue of Palestinians is–I call it “the wound in the heart that never healed” within the Arab psyche. It is a story that continues to be told, the World War I betrayal. It in some ways, Palestine exists in the Arab mind the way Wounded Knee exists among the Indigenous peoples here in America.

MARC STEINER That’s an interesting analogy.

JAMES ZOGBY The story of what happened to their people that continues to reverberate throughout the ages. And so, there is obviously a sense that Israel is not an accepted partner. And this whole thing, the Kushner plan, you’ll get some Arab leaders willing to sit, but they’ll only do it in a very private setting because they know where their people are, and their people are “unless there’s justice for Palestinians, don’t even bring this up.”

MARC STEINER There’s a reason why in this poll–and we don’t know the data, as you said, behind all these numbers–but why Palestinians in this polling consider the U.S. to be the second largest threat after Israel. And obviously it’s gotten worse, I think.

JAMES ZOGBY Again, like I said, we’ve worked really hard to earn that rating.

MARC STEINER Right, unfortunately so. So very quickly, then we’ll move onto another subject, how do you see the issue of secularization in the Arab world from your own research? How does it compare to what this BBC survey did?

JAMES ZOGBY Well, let’s take an example, UAE, which has like 15 percent of the population is Emirati, the rest are expats. And it’s a very secular environment. Young people do not resent the foreign presence, don’t see it as a threat to their morality. But they have, in a real sense, reaffirmed their religious identity in the face of it. They say it makes them stronger. Then take another country like Tunisia, for example. Years of secular rule, military rule, oppressive, human rights violated. People gravitated toward the underground religious parties. They come out of that in a revolution, and you have a split between those who say, “We don’t want to give up the freedoms we had” versus those who say, “Those freedoms also brought us repression, we have to affirm our tradition and our religion in order to move forward.” So there’s no “one size fits all” picture in the Arab world, but my best sense is that while there is a secularizing trend among some, more dominant is the growing religious mindset, which is not religious so much as it is an affirmation of tradition, an affirmation of identity, and a rejection of the West.

MARC STEINER A rejection of the West, you said, or of the left?

JAMES ZOGBY Leaders who identify themselves with the West.

MARC STEINER So very quickly, before we run out of time, there are a couple of things that I think it’s important to kind of touch on here. Trump is way down in the polls with most Arab people no matter where they are, but Erdogan seems to be held in high regard, except low regard in places that have kind of a direct conflict with Egypt in terms of who’s swaying the power in the Islamic world. So that, to me, was interesting, why Erdogan seems to be so popular in this poll.

JAMES ZOGBY Erdogan has replaced Iran in a sense. I did a large book, actually, on Arab attitudes towards Iran called Looking at Iran: The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab Public Opinion. And here’s what we found: when Iran was viewed through the prism of the West and its defiance of the West, its popularity rose; when Iran was viewed on its own merits, that is its own behavior, its popularity shrunk. And that’s the same with Erdogan. In the countries where he’s viewed as a defiant figure who challenges the West, who challenges Israel, his numbers are really high, but in the countries where they see his role in Syria, for example, or his role in Libya, for example, his popularity goes down because they view him on his own terms and that’s not a good thing for him. It’s better for him to be seen in the abstract than in the concrete.

MARC STEINER And finally, let me just very quickly talk about this one piece which has to do with kind of attitude towards sexuality and women and homosexuality. Women seem to be more favored in this poll in terms of having national power but not in terms of community, not in terms of family, not in terms of the everyday lives of people in most of the societies. And clearly the hatred of homosexuality is high, even though you have more men feeling in Iraq and other places that they have been more sexually harassed than women. I found those to be really kind of fascinating. I could spend the entire time just talking about that aspect.

JAMES ZOGBY I think so. It’s a very conflicted set of figures, and I think that the word conflicted would probably fit where Arabs are on these issues. We find, for example, it’s fascinating in Saudi Arabia when you poll there. You find that more Saudi men want women to have equal rights, they say, than women, but when you ask them then a whole series of questions about family, about property, about children, then their attitudes–so in the abstract it’s a good idea, but when you get into concretes it doesn’t work.

MARC STEINER Well, that’s part of the negative aspects of the toll the Abrahamic cultures have done to women in our world. Anyway, James Zogby, it’s always great to talk to you. We appreciate the time. Thank you for your work and we look forward to doing more talks soon.

JAMES ZOGBY Thank you.

MARC STEINER Thank you. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Look forward to hearing from you. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.