A deep and dangerous knowledge gap
Americans are the most educated people in the world but the least educated about the world.
The American education gap widens when it comes to topics of the Middle East, an area they should be better informed about considering that in the past nearly two decades, more Americans were killed or injured there than in any other international region.
A new survey by YouGov in partnership with Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English-language newspaper, reports that two countries — Iraq and Saudi Arabia — stand out in Americans’ minds as being part of the Arab world.
I am sure the reasons are simple: More than 4,500 Americans have died in Iraq since the US first invaded that Arab country in 2003. Oil from the Middle East countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, fuels the cars Americans need to sustain their lifestyle.
Yet in the survey of more than 2,000 Americans by YouGov and Arab News, the gap in American knowledge about the Middle East is staggering.
A large segment of those polled, 65 percent, admitted they do not know much about the Arab world.
Nothing says that more than the fact that 21 percent of those surveyed actually identified the “Sultanate of Agrabah” as an Arab country.
Apparently, Americans were really moved by the Hollywood lyrics, “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Agrabah, Arabia is the “City of Mystery” located “this side of the Jordan river” that was home for Aladdin in Disney’s 1993 children’s animated movie.
It does not exist. But 38 percent said that Agrabah should be added to the US travel ban if its “citizens” pose a threat.
Why is all this important? Because the future of the Middle East is being driven by the policies made by the American administration, which is driven by the beliefs and stereotypes its 325 million population have about the Middle East.
The polling showed other startling realities of how Americans view the Arab world, such as that only 19 percent of Americans could actually identify the region on a map.
The future of the Middle East is being driven by policies made by the American administration, which itself is driven by the often-incorrect beliefs its 325 million population have about the region.
The Arab News/YouGov poll shows Americans do want more information about the Arab world, with half of the respondents blaming the US mainstream news media for not providing enough coverage.
On the one hand, the survey shows that Americans are ripe for understanding more about the Arab world. That is great for the growing English-language segment of the Arab world’s news media, like Arab News, which is growing in popularity in the US market.
But the survey also points to a fundamental problem that exists. It is not just that the Americans do not know much about the Middle East before they send their sons and daughters to fight in that region. It shows that the Arab world is not doing its part to inform Americans.
Unfortunately, the Arab governments invest little or no money in public relations and communications strategy to promote their events, culture, tourism, and more importantly, issues to the American people.
In contrast, Israel, which 36 percent of the respondents to the poll identified as being a part of the “Arab world,” spends hundreds of millions of dollars on public relations and communications campaigns, and it pays off big time.
The US Congress is planning cutbacks on funding to foreign countries. It provides $35 billion in foreign aid each year to 135 countries, including $1.5 billion to Egypt, $1 billion to Jordan, $373 million to Iraq, $210 million to Palestine, $156 million to Lebanon, $155 million to Syria, and $82 million to Yemen.
But America gives $3.1 billion a year to Israel, which engages in the oppression of Arab citizens and civilians and fuels public antagonism and perceptions against many Arab countries.
So there is little wonder that more than 54 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel in the conflict with Palestine, while only 19 percent sympathize with Palestinians, according to a 2016 PEW Research Center study. And a survey last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that only 36 percent of American voters support allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country.
American perceptions have a direct impact on the Middle East. The YouGov and Arab News survey helps us understand why that impact has not been positive.
• Ray Hanania is an award- winning Palestinian American columnist and author. Reach him at [email protected]