As I have been traveling around the U.S. discussing my new book Arab Voices, attempting to shatter the myths that many Americans have about Arabs, I frequently get the question, "but do Arabs understand us?"
In response I note that because of globalization, many aspects of American culture are known world-wide. Despite this degree of familiarity, I acknowledge that just as there are many myths that cloud Americans' understanding of the Arab World, there are myths believed by many Arabs that distort their understanding of America and the American people.
Let me describe a few:
First there is the assumption that American policy formulation is deliberative, based on reasoned understanding of problems and consequences. It is this myth that often gives rise to conspiracy theories.
For example, when America invaded Iraq and it rapidly became clear that the entire enterprise was going awry, some Arabs believed that instead of being a massive ill-conceived blunder, the goal all along had been to create chaos, weakening Iraq thereby making it dependent on a continued American military presence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is that the ideologues who dominated the Bush administration's policy formulation actually believed their own rhetoric. Seeing the world through their distorted interpretation of what ended the Soviet Empire, and colored by their (let me be blunt) racist view of Arabs, they really believed that a demonstration of overwhelming force ("shock and awe") and firm resolve, backed up by military might, would be sufficient to topple the dictator and liberate the people of Iraq. In their mythic view, they saw the Iraqi people, cowed by power and a firm resolve, greeting American forces with "flowers and candy", with democracy blooming and then spreading across the Middle East. The neo-conservative "planners" of this fantasy-turned-debacle, didn't listen to the more experienced professionals in the military or the diplomatic corps who repeatedly warned them that Iraq would not be the "cakewalk" they expected and that the Iraqi people would not look kindly on an occupation.
That the ensuing resistance and sectarian violence, the unleashing and emboldening of Iran, and the resultant regional insecurity were unanticipated was not accepted by many in the Arab World. That the world's one remaining superpower could simply have been such a blunderer was beyond belief -- so conspiracies had to be invented to explain away this reality.
Inventing logical intent to make American policymakers appear smarter than they, in fact, are, is born of myth number one.
Next in line is the myth that the Israel lobby and, by extension, the Jewish community, control all the levers of power in America. It is true that many American Jews have become successful in many areas of U.S. corporate and cultural life. But it is also true that most wealth and power in the U.S. is still in the hands of good old-fashioned White Anglo Saxon Protestants.
There can be no doubt that those who lobby for Israel are a force to be reckoned with, but several facts must also be considered: right-wing Christian fundamentalists (who form 40% of the Republican Party's voter base) have a major role in shaping policies toward the Middle East; polls show that most American Jews (and Christians) do not support hard-line Israeli positions; and the myth of the invincible AIPAC is just that -- a myth.
The problem is that this myth is so widely believed, that it has taken on a life of its own and is accepted by AIPAC's supporters and opponents alike. The idea that "if you cross them, they will defeat you" is so widely believed that it causes many in Congress to simply "go along to get along" out of fear. But the reality is quite different. Many of those elected officials who claim that AIPAC beat them (for which, AIPAC gladly accepts the credit, since it fuels the myth of their power), lost for other quite unrelated reasons. And I know of too many instances where AIPAC has tried to defeat candidates and couldn't, and where they tried to defend friends in Congress who ended up losing their elections.
The bottom line: these lobbies are strong and they do exercise an undesirable influence on policy -- but it is the result of unwarranted fear, more than agreement -- and in many instances they lead to actions not supported by the majority of Americans (even Jewish and Christian Americans for whom these lobbies claim to speak).
Another myth is that Americans are increasingly intolerant of Muslims and Arabs, and that America is a hostile and unwelcoming place. The reality is quite the opposite. It is true that we've had a spike in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes, but official statistics establish that the numbers of these incidents still pale when compared, for example, to anti-Semetic acts directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.
More to the point, the far more difficult to measure gestures and acts of support for Arabs and Muslims are too numerous to mention. One specific incident comes to mind. During the stressful period when the Park 51 controversy was raging and that nutty preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a Quran, I had the honor of participating in an extraordinary meeting in Washington. The meeting brought together in one room: the heads of the National Council of Churches USA (representing every major Protestant and Orthodox Christian denomination), leaders from the US Catholic Bishops Conference, leaders from most major Jewish groups (representing Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc), representatives of major African American religious groupings, and the heads of the Islamic Society of north America and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. We sat for three hours and debated and passed a strong resolution condemning the intolerance and bigotry toward Islam that was on display in New York, Florida and Tennessee. The group then went to a well-attended press conference to present the resolution. The next day, however, this important consensus statement received only scant mention in U.S. and international media -- the press was too busy covering the nutty bigot/provocateur in Florida. Also unreported were the many inter-faith (Muslim/Christian/Jewish) gatherings that came together in cities across the U.S. to defy the bigots and chart a course for cooperation and understanding
They say "bad news is big news." And "the loudest voice gets the most attention." But bad news and loud voices don't define reality. So just as extremists and haters in other societies do not speak for those societies, neither do they speak for all Americans.
Despite the inexcusable actions of some, the anger of others, and some bad policies put in place by our government, America remains a welcoming country and Americans continue to be a generous and hospitable people. And while, in this period of economic stress and political insecurity, some communities do experience hardships, this remains a country where immigrants can find a welcome home and work to realize their dreams. And it happens every day.
In short: American policy-makers aren't as smart as many believe them to be; American policies don't always reflect the will of the American people; and Americans are more hospitable than press accounts would reveal them to be.
Now this short piece can not explore and explode all the myths about America in the same detail I devote in Arab Voices to shattering myths about Arabs. But consider it the beginning of a needed discussion to help us bridge the deep divide that has made it more difficult to understand each other.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.