To Believe or Not to Believe—in the Middle East

Some years ago, when I found myself on assignment in Cuba (an assignment of which the Cuban government, until the articles on it were published, remained oblivious), I found myself the target of an incendiary rage—courtesy my group’s tour guide. He, too, had supposed I was a tourist. And he was really distressed, to put it mildly, that the previous evening I had, to quote him, “escaped” from the tour and his vigilance, choosing instead to drop in on assorted night clubs. It was a defection, he pointed out, that he only learned of a few fatal hours later, from certain club-minders who caught me talking to Cubans who had not been approved for interviews.

“Do you realize what could have happened to you? Do you know how dangerous it is in these clubs?” he demanded. And then, unnecessarily: “At night?”

I repeated his earlier words back to him, uttered on the first day of our tour: “Night or day, Havana is one of the safest places on earth for tourists.”

Clearly my unauthorized disappearance called for a different tack. “Okay. Do you know how irresponsible you are? Do you know what it costs the Cuban government every year to pay people to follow you and other stupid foreigners around?” He gestured to the lobby of the Havana Nazionale, the only hotel open to Americans, where a few non-Americans in shirtsleeves lounged, noses plunged elaborately into their Spanish-language newspapers. “We have them sitting all day here watching you and your friends! Do you know how poor we Cubans are as a result of all this unnecessary expense?”

I think of that unhappy and confused Cuban tour guide every time someone mentions opinion polls in Arab countries, oddly enough—specifically surveys that inquire of the Arab common man his supposed views on American policy or Americans in general. Their stated opinions are, give or take a few differences in specifics, completely and utterly synchronic with those of any jaundiced person anywhere. That the US is, in one way or other, responsible for almost anything that happens in any nation. That these unfortunate nations are suffering not from any homegrown tyranny, but from the brutality of Washington. That the economic defeat from which these countries may suffer is the penalty imposed not by their own greedy, corrupt, or profligate leaders but by the First World as a whole. That, finally, anything that seems on the face of it to be true and logical and obvious is in fact calculated disinformation almost certainly spread by Yankee spies who disappear into nightclubs.

Here’s a sample survey that’s been sitting on my desk since September, when the results first appeared:

An exclusive Newsweek–Daily Beast poll of 1,000 Egyptians reveals that a majority (53 percent) doesn’t believe that al Qaeda was responsible for the Twin Tower attacks—instead affixing blame to Israel, the U.S. government or an unknown entity.

In the same survey, 62 percent either don’t believe the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden or they aren’t sure.

And here’s another one, also culled this year, from the Arab American Institute, which asked pollster James Zogby to question citizens from six Arab nations: “In five out of the six countries surveyed, the U.S. was viewed less favorably than Turkey, China, France—or Iran.” And finally, here’s yet another result, same survey: “The continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and U.S. interference in the Arab world are held to be the greatest obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Now, let’s examine these results. Five out of six Arab nations—a group that includes the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt—believe that Iran and China are better countries—meaning more peace-loving—than the US. (Only Saudi Arabia believed that Iran was probably more bellicose than the US). The majority of all respondents in all six Arab nations believe that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was a rotten idea. And Israel—and not, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia, for years the prime source of protection money to Bin Laden—is the biggest obstacle to world peace.

What are we to make to make of all these survey results? Well, for one thing, I think the most important caveat in both is this: Don’t believe everyone who’s polled, because, like as not, the pollee doesn’t believe it himself. In countries like, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, speaking your mind is, often as not, a high-powered vehicle to imprisonment or death (or both).

In other words, when the majority of 1,000 or so Egyptians in a survey claims to believe that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were innocent of the 9/11 attacks or that the US—or its ally Israel—were the guilty parties, it might be worth one’s while to check and see just how privately these surveys were conducted, and just how safe respondents felt talking about politics.

Egyptian newspapers and politicians, after all, are not exactly averse to blaming Israel for the 9/11 attacks, as proven in July when Ahmed Ezz al-Arab, a policy chief for that nation’s leading secular party, told the Washington Times that (a) the Mossad and the CIA were actually responsible for the calamity and, as a light afterthought, (b) that he, al-Arab, “could swear” that Anne Frank’s diary “is a fake.” And as early as 2002, the Jordanian government newspaper Al Dustour touted the same line: “It’s obvious that Israel is the one to gain greatly from this bloody, loathsome…” (etc., etc., etc.).

Did the Jordanian columnist honestly believe this drivel? Do Egyptian or Lebanese respondents to Zogby questions? I suspect that, like my angry Cuban tour guide, and for similar reasons, some of them believe what they have to believe. Others believe what they want to believe. And still others, probably the majority, don’t believe much of anything at all because they live in countries where belief isn’t a matter of conviction, and it isn’t based on logic or likely conclusions reached after examining hard facts disseminated to readers or listeners. There are no facts. There is, on the other hand, poverty and ignorance and only the slimmest chance of defeating both.

Polls, in other words, are only as honest and credible as those polled. We don’t know what most people in the Middle East are thinking. They don’t either.

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