LONDON: A “colossal gap” in understanding of the Arab world among many Britons must be tackled to counter the growing problem of Islamophobia, while a “reset” is needed in UK foreign policy on the region.
Those were key conclusions of an Arab News panel discussion held Monday to coincide with the publication of a poll about Brits’ attitudes toward the Arab world.
The Arab News/YouGov survey, conducted in conjunction with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), found that 81 percent of the British population said they know little or nothing about the region.
“We have collectively to address this colossal gap in awareness of the ‘other’ and this mutual misunderstanding,” Chris Doyle, director of CAABU, told the panel discussion held at the council’s offices.
Faisal J. Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, said he was not shocked about the UK public’s apparent lack of interest in, or knowledge of, the Arab World. “Why would you want to hear a constant drip of negative news from the region?” he told the panel.
Abbas urged media organizations to report on cultural news from the region and not just focus on “bullets and bombs.”
The “UK attitudes toward the Arab world” poll found that 41 percent of Brits say they would not travel to the Arab world, citing safety concerns, human rights issues and a lack of interest in the area.
This was coupled with a sense of fear among some survey respondents, with 23 percent associating the Arab world with extremism and 14 percent with violence.
More than half (55 percent) of the survey respondents said they agreed with racial profiling against Arabs and Muslims for security reasons, while 69 percent said that the UK should take in fewer refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The poll revealed further negative perceptions, with 72 percent of Brits saying that Islamophobia is a worsening problem in the UK, and one in seven saying that anti-refugee statements by politicians and other public figures is increasing the risk of hate crimes in the country.
Abbas said he too had noted an “alarming” shift in the rhetoric of UK politicians when talking about extremism, terrorism and Islam.
Doyle told the panel that politicians must be “more careful” about the comments they make regarding refugees and immigrants, while the media must not “pander to the extremes,” whether it is giving a platform to Daesh and Al-Qaeda or far-Right groups.
While he hopes that the anti-Arab and anti-refugee views revealed by the survey are only a temporary “phase,” Abbas also said he wants to see a more united effort from within the Arab world to combat such perceptions.
“We need to actively work together and someone needs to take a lead,” he said, adding that the Arab world needs to do a “better job making ourselves relevant again.”
He also urged international media to be “fairer” in their coverage of the region, while acknowledging that Middle East media have their own set of challenges to overcome.
Anthony Wells, director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling, said changing people’s perceptions would be a “hard” task.
“If there is anything to be done, it is to create an impression in people’s minds that there isn’t just a stereotype of Saudi Arabia or Islam. But in doing that, it is going to be hard, as there is no easy route of communication,” he said on the sidelines of the event.
One way of changing views is through education, said Doyle.
“We can actually open up schools to a less Eurocentric view of the world. We hear our politicians now talking about a global Britain and that needs to be matched in the classrooms, so people do know about other areas of the world outside of Europe and North America,” he said.
While the survey indicated a widespread lack of understanding about the Arab world, respondents displayed strong views about UK foreign policy.
Over half of the UK respondents said that British foreign policy in the Arab world has been largely ineffective in upholding human rights and upholding global security.
More than 80 percent believe that Britain was wrong to go to war in Iraq in 2003, while 53 percent support the UK’s continued military engagement against Daesh in Syria and Iraq.
Doyle said there needs to be a “resetting of British foreign policy” in order to “move away from always thinking about military options to resolve issues.”
He added: “There is of course a burden on the Arab world … Institutions — educational, religious and others — can do so much to counter some of the negativity here.
“The danger is Britain and other countries are pulling up the drawbridge and are no longer really looking outward. I think that is a very dim view of the future — and it is with a collective persistent effort something that can be overcome.”
The Arab News/YouGov poll was conducted between Aug. 16 and 17 and surveyed 2,142 adults.
• For full report and related articles please visit: How Brits view Arab world