It is not just Americans who know so little of the Arab world
Should we be shocked that 81 percent of Americans cannot identify the Arab world on the map? This was the headline finding of the Arab News/YouGov poll published last week. After all, the US just elected a man who promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and claimed: “I think Islam hates us.” Surveys show that views of Arabs and Muslims have just merged into one.
More alarming is that over a fifth of those polled believe in the existence of Agrabah, the fictitious setting for Disney’s “Aladdin,” one of the most egregious of anti-Arab films. This echoes a 2015 poll showing that 30 percent of Republican primary voters would back bombing Agrabah (it was 19 percent for Democrats).
Levels of ignorance and apathy are translating into dangerous prejudice and support for racist and discriminatory policies. Thirty-eight percent of those polled would be happy with a travel ban on Agrabah, even it if it is accessible only by magic carpet.
But the US is not the sole bastion of such ignorance and hatred. European snobbery about American lack of knowledge of the wider world, not least the Middle East, is not unknown. I would not care to guess at the level of geographic knowledge of most Europeans about Southeast Asia, for example, let alone the Middle East. As bad as it is in the US, other areas of the world often fare little better in their knowledge of the region.
Sixty-five percent of those asked in this poll admitted they know little about the Arab world. To put this into perspective, one of the reasons the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) was created was that there was an opinion poll in Britain that showed 98 percent of the public claimed to know little or nothing about the Arab world. Then again, in 1967 there were no satellite news stations or the Internet.
A quarter of Canadians wanted a Donald Trump-like ban, and most Canadians do not hold positive views of Muslims. In a survey of 10 European countries, 55 percent wanted a ban on immigration from mainly Muslim countries, with only 25 percent opposing it.
Most polls show that in the US, UK, Germany, Italy and France, there is a grossly exaggerated sense of the size of the Muslim population. In France, a poll found that most people thought 31 percent of the population was Muslim; the real figure is 7.5 percent. Trump tapped into this sentiment, but so have many far-right politicians across Europe.
Just like him, European politicians have seen Muslim- and Arab-bashing as a vote-winner. The leader of a fascist party, Marine Le Pen, just got 34 percent of the vote in France. Geert Wilders, the “Dutch Trump,” came second in the Dutch elections in March. Only in last year’s London mayoral elections did Muslim-bashing fail, when Sadiq Khan triumphed to become the city’s first Muslim mayor after facing a torrent of dog whistle-style attacks.
One of the reasons the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) was created was that there was an opinion poll in Britain that showed 98 percent of the public claimed to know little or nothing about the Arab world.
The implications remain alarming as the situation deteriorates. More Daesh-inspired atrocities and negative attitudes will gather pace, with innocent Muslims bearing the brunt. Already many Arabs and Muslims anglicize their names in the US, from Muhammad to Mo or Walid to Wally. European Arabs and Muslims are increasingly fearful.
Arabs appear to have the worst reputation among those who do not follow news of the region. Improving news quality and coverage can help, but for those who do not pay attention to news, it is vital to reach out to them culturally. There is also the issue that for decades, Hollywood and television have largely dehumanized and stereotyped Arabs and Muslims. This must be challenged even more vigorously.
Whatever PR and education drives are mounted, little will be truly effective while conflicts, terrorism and extremism blight the Middle East. Daesh killed more than 6,000 people in 2015 in 28 countries. The overwhelming majority of the victims are Muslim, but attacks in developed countries are on the rise. It will probably not make much impact to point out that in 2014, gun crime accounted for 1,000 times more American deaths than terrorism.
This is an emotional, not a logical challenge. The narrative of the “Arab-Muslim” threat is powerful, and has been exaggerated all too often for political gain. Powerful Arab and Muslim role models are a vital asset. Leadership on this issue will not flow from the White House under Trump. Other leaders must step forward to heal these rifts before it is too late.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appear willing to a degree, but the new French President Emmanuel Macron must also challenge these prejudices. Likewise, Arab and Muslim leaders must become partners and active ambassadors to tackle this ignorance and prejudice, and not wait for the next crisis to act.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.