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50 years on, stereotypes of Arab world still linger

Fifty years ago, an opinion poll found that 98 percent of the British population knew little or nothing about the Arab world. This was a prime concern for the newly created Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).
Today, as the YouGov poll commissioned by Arab News and CAABU highlights, that figure stands at 81 percent. A 17-percentage-point improvement is something, but still shows a worryingly high level of acknowledged ignorance and lack of understanding. It is something mirrored across Europe and North America.
This knowledge gap is something that should cause decision makers, opinion formers and educators in Britain, the rest of the West and indeed the Arab world to wake up and consider solutions to address the problem.
It is not just that those polled stated they know little or nothing about the Arab world. The evidence stacks up elsewhere. An incredible 72 percent of UK respondents said Iran is in the Arab world and — perhaps even more surprising — 48 percent also said Afghanistan is an Arab country. Turkey is seen as the third most-preferred destination to visit in the “Arab world,” despite not, of course, being part of the region.
This bears out what we at CAABU have experienced in talking to pupils at British schools, where some aged 16 and 17 were confused between the Arab world and India, even China.
Geography is not the only weakness. Only 1 percent of respondents associate Arab culture with Christianity, while just 2 percent see Arab society as being “civilized.” The two are related. The findings highlight the prevalent belief that the Arab world is separate with no linkage to the West, as if Christianity originated in Rome, and that somehow European culture — which owes so much to other cultures, including Arab — is superior.
Another lingering image, which originally emerged after the oil boom of the 1970s, is that of the “rich Arab.” Only 6 percent associate the Arab world with poverty, while 31 percent link it with wealth. For sure, wealth still abounds in the petrodollar states of the Gulf, which the survey indicated to be better understood as “Arab.” The region as a whole however endures tough economic conditions, not least rampant youth unemployment, which drove so much of the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011. A UNICEF study of 11 Arab countries published earlier this year found that a quarter of children in the Arab world live in poverty.
The Arab world is at the epicenter of the earliest historical civilizations and events known to man, yet somehow only 25 percent associate the region as being rich in history. Perhaps this reflects the continued Eurocentric view of the world, not least in many history textbooks. In reality, it is Arabs who may look at Britain as being a rather late addition to the history of man.

The Arab world is at the epicenter of the earliest historical civilizations, yet somehow only 25 percent of Brits associate the region with being rich in history.

Chris Doyle

Of the other results of the poll, some may be surprised that only 14 percent associate violence with Arab cultures given the horrific levels of bloody conflict the region has experienced over the last five years and the growth of groups like Daesh in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. This might be seen to conflict with the view of the 41 percent of respondents who stated that they would not visit the Arab world, and the 60 percent that cited concerns about personal safety as a reason for this.
For the Arab world, the image that their societies are no longer associated with innovation and forward thinking must be addressed. Only 1 percent of Brits surveyed associate the region with these things. Things are changing, but where is the investment in cutting-edge research centers? Have the shackles on freedom of expression come at a price? The annual Arab Youth Survey shows that young Arabs see their education systems failing them.
In Britain, as with Europe and the US, allowing such levels of ignorance to fester is not healthy. The solution is not about ignoring all the ills and weaknesses of the Arab world, nor the challenges its people face, but in realizing and appreciating the diversity and the untapped potential.
The alternative is the increased hatred and fear highlighted by the poll, which found that 72 percent of Brits see Islamophobia as a greater problem in Britain today. At least there is a heightened awareness of this issue, but is there a serious political will to deal with it? Politicians should take note about the public disquiet regarding anti-refugee statements, given that a considerable 70 percent believe that such discourse risks sparking more hate crimes. Sadly 41 percent of those polled see immigrants from the Arab world as not being beneficial to Britain or Europe. How much of this perception is rooted in any serious reality?
Another question centers on whether Britain will go down the road of racial profiling. A startling 55 percent would support this against Arabs and Muslims for security reasons.
The strange thing is that despite so many admitting to a lack of knowledge of the Arab world and its societies, this did not put them off expressing strong views on such issues as immigration, refugees and racial profiling. Facts appear to be irrelevant as they have been in other debates.
For Europe, the Arab world is our near neighbor. The UK has massive trade, financial and, above all, human relations with this region both historically and in the present. Pulling up the drawbridge and ignoring it should not be an option. A truly global Britain will require a more positive and informed understanding of the world we live in.

Chris Doyle is 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. Twitter: @Doylech