What Does the American

Public Think of the Arab Awakening?

May 22, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

16:00 PM

Sunday,May 22, 2011

17:30 PM
Brookings Doha Center
BDC Doha Qatar


On May 22, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a joint policy discussion with Qatar University (QU) featuring Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. Steven Wright, head of the Department of International Affairs at QU, moderated the discussion, and Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, made introductory remarks. Telhami’s address revealed results from his most recent poll, “The American Public and the Arab Awakening,” which was released in conjunction with the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in April, 2011 and monitored changes in American public opinion regarding the Middle East due to the recent uprisings. The event featured a lively question and answer session and was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities. It was followed by the announcement of a joint BDC-QU Visiting Fellowship.

With a nationally representative sample of 802 Americans and a margin of error of 3.5 percent, Telhami’s latest poll asked respondents their opinions of the recent Arab Awakening, as well as of Arabs and the Middle East more generally. Overall, he reported, Americans seem to have more positive views of the region in recent months than in previous years.

Interestingly, 57 percent of Americans sampled in April 2011 agreed with the statement “I would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies,” compared to 48 percent in September 2005, when the Bush Administration was granting considerable rhetorical support for democracy in the Middle East. Furthermore, only 15 percent of respondents answered that the popular uprisings are more about Islamist groups seeking political power, compared to 45 percent, who said that they were more about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy, and 37 percent who said that both were equally important.

In light of the divisive rhetoric that emerged after 9/11, these new polling results represent a significant change in perceptions, undermining the once popular narrative of a clash of civilizations. Indeed, 39 percent of respondents said their level of sympathy for the Arab people increased due to the uprisings, and 33 percent said their sense of how similar the aspirations of the Arab people are to their own also increased. This shows a major net improvement in perception of the Arab people as a consequence of the Arab Awakening.

In terms of the American response to the uprisings in Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, the overwhelming majority of respondents in each case said the United States should not take a position (66 percent in Syria, 68 percent in Yemen, 69 percent in Bahrain, 68 percent in Jordan, 65 percent in Saudi Arabia). Nonetheless, of those who did support intervention, the majority took the sides of demonstrators over governments. In line with this trend, 68 percent of respondents in March agreed with the U.S. decision to take part in NATO airstrikes in Libya, compared to 54 percent one month later. Still, only 36 percent supported arming the Libyan rebels, suggesting the American public, while sympathetic to the protesters’ causes, is reticent about more direct intervention.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, 25 percent of respondents in November 2010 supported the United States leaning toward Israel, compared to 67 percent who said neither side should be supported and 2 percent in favor of U.S. support for Palestinians. In April 2011, 27 percent said that U.S. policy should lean toward Israel; 65 percent supported leaning toward neither side; and 5 percent were proponents of leaning toward Palestinians. Popular opinion on the issue was shown to have been remarkably consistent over the past decade, with roughly two-thirds of the American public saying the United States should not take a stance either way. Of those who do want the United States to take a side, about five to one support Israel over the Palestinians. Interestingly, Telhami revealed, Americans who identify as Republicans were shown to be much more likely to be supportive of leaning toward Israel. Over 45 percent of respondents who identify as Republicans said they lean toward Israel, compared to less than 15 percent among Democrats.

By and large, the Arab Awakening has had a positive effect on the American perception of the Middle East, Islam, and particularly of the Arab people. Nonetheless, Telhami stressed that we cannot be certain that this trend will last. In fact, he compared the positive attitudes of Arabs and Islam immediately after 9/11, which gave way to negative perceptions months later. This initial reaction to the Arab Awakening, then, though positive, may not persist. Telhami pointed out that during important events like 9/11 and the Arab Spring, people reassess their assumptions about the world. These are times of paradigmatic shifts, and what an administration says and does at such moments has a great effect on how they are viewed. What the Bush administration did, whether intended or not, had the consequence of pushing the paradigm of a clash of civilizations. In Telhami’s view, Obama’s major May 19 speech on the Middle East was important in terms of the message it sent to the American people about the Muslim world. Although words may not influence the Arab populace, they can change American perceptions, he said, and help to consolidate a positive interpretation of the Arab Spring. By comparing the struggle in the Middle East to American experiences like the Boston Tea Party, Obama helped to encourage support and sympathy for the uprisings.

Following Telhami’s presentation, a question and answer session covered a range of topics, including the American role in supporting Israel, the American perception of Muslims around the world, and the role of economics in the Arab Spring. Moderator Steven Wright asked about the reliability of the sample size, as well as whether geographical location was an important variable in shaping public opinion. Telhami responded that the sampling was stratified to ensure geographical representation and that variation occurred more demographically than regionally. Indeed, variables like party affiliation, age, education, and gender appeared more important in determining an ideological divide. Another question brought up the variable of religious affiliation in the polling. Telhami answered that the one major trend is seen among Evangelical Christians, who tend to support Israel. Although people often think public support for Israel comes primarily from American Jews, Telhami said, polls indicate that Israel is only the seventh most important issue to them. For the Evangelical right, however, Israel has been a prominent issue since the 1980s. Indeed, many see Netanyahu as trying to play the Republican-Democrat divide over the Israel issue.

Salman Shaikh raised the issue of the previous week’s Nakba day, when the protests broke out in Palestinian territory, reaching the provisional border of Israel. Shaikh asked how a nonviolent Palestinian movement would affect the Israeli public. Telhami said that Nakba day itself had an important psychological impact on Israel. He referred back to the first, mostly peaceful, Palestinian intifada, which made it more difficult for Israel to delegitimize the Palestinian struggle. Telhami stressed also that the United States must not make the Arab uprisings about itself, and particularly should not engineer outcomes anywhere in the region.

After the question and answer session, Dr. Shaikha Bint Jabor Al-Thani, vice president and chief academic officer of QU and a leading Qatari educator, and Salman Shaikh announced a new BDC-QU Joint Visiting Fellowship Program. Two visiting fellows will divide their five-six month tenure between the BDC and QU. The fellow will write 1-2 policy briefings as well as teach two courses at QU. Shaikh underscored the importance of the partnership in the BDC’s efforts to become part of the local community in Qatar.


Shibley Telhami
nonresident senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, as well as the Center for Middle East Policy, and the Foreign Policy program at Brookings