Arab Public Opinion: It Matters

by jeremyzelinger
May 02

Jeremy Zelinger, IGL Staff Member, attended Dr. Shibley Telhami's talk on April 29, 2014 at Tufts University


Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, visited the Institute for Global Leadership this Wednesday to lecture on his new book, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East (Basic Books, 2013).


Telhami argued that public opinion in the Middle East and North Africa is an overlooked variable in explaining the region’s events. He also advised students students about their specific research interests in the MENA region.


The visit was organized in partnership with James Nadel, an IGL alumnus who now manages World Affairs Council programs at World Boston. It marked a special interaction between two grant recipients of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is currently supporting both Professor Telhami’s book project and the IGL’s EPIIC (Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship) program. The Carnegie grant to EPIIC, a two-semester colloquium focusing on a unique topic each year, covers two themes – “The Future of the Middle East and North Africa” and “Russia and the Near Abroad.” Telhami’s visit on Wednesday came as the first theme nears conclusion.


The EPIIC students who attended Dr. Telhami’s lecture have thus spent the last year studying the Middle East and North Africa. They have engaged leading scholars and practitioners in the colloquium, read an extensive literature, including Dr. Telhami’s own book, The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (Cornell, 2013), and many have travelled to the region for independent research and fact-finding missions.


One student who attended the lecture, Rebekah Waller, is designing a summer research project on cross-national public opinion surveys in the Middle East and North Africa. Her project will explore the institutions, organizations, and political actors that comprise the public opinion research industry, in which Professor Telhami plays an integral role.


Professor Telhami described the methodology of survey research, from choosing samples and writing questions to gathering and interpreting data. He expressed the inherent challenges of survey research in the Middle East, where political and religious factors can limit the scope of survey questions. He also described the importance of public opinion in forming policy, especially as the digital revolution loosens governmental control over information.


Professor Telhami referenced several examples of public opinion playing an important role in determining regional events. After public protest in Egypt toppled both President Mubarak and his successor President Morsi, members of the current Egyptian regime fear public sentiment and have initiated a full-fledged propaganda campaign to control it. Contrary to popular belief in the West, most people living in the Gulf do not perceive Iran as an enemy, despite their government’s rhetoric suggesting the opposite. And among Israelis and Palestinians, both societies had such low expectations for the recent peace talks that their leaders had a rare opportunity to make progress without the normal public scrutiny and criticism that often derails momentum. Ironically, however, the low expectations ultimately undermined the negotiations because leaders refused to compromise without a legitimate prospect of success. Professor Telhami emphasized that in all these cases public opinion is an important explanatory variable that is often overlooked or misinterpreted.


Many of Professor Telhami’s insights confirmed what previous EPIIC lecturers have stated in the colloquium. Telhami’s research compliments that of Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian professor and public opinion expert, who spoke in EPIIC alongside his colleague, Shai Feldman, with whom he authored the recently released, Arabs and Israelis (Palgrave, 2013). Moreover, Telhami covered many of the same events analyzed by the International Crisis Group (, whose leading Middle East researchers have also lectured in the EPIIC colloquium.


Telhami’s research indicates that although a quarter of Palestinians prefer a single democratic state to a two state solution, the overwhelming majority believes that such an outcome is unlikely to occur. This finding supports the opinion of Mouin Rabbani, the head of the Middle East Division of the Conflict Management Initiative, who told the EPIIC class that the one state solution is “a pipe dream.” Sara Roy, a senior research fellow in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, explained in EPIIC that after the signing of the Oslo Accords most Palestinians were prepared to compromise on many core issues of the conflict. Twenty years later, it is much harder to convince the average Palestinian that compromise and negotiation will lead to a breakthrough. Telhami’s public opinion surveys confirm this decrease in optimism among Palestinians, though Telhami added that Israelis have grown more cynical as well.


Telhami’s lecture touched on new ground for the EPIIC class by venturing into American public opinion on the Middle East. Though the EPIIC class previously heard from Christopher Henzel, Director of the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, Telhami provided more detail on changing American perceptions toward the region. Fewer Americans support Israel unequivocally with many stating that Israel’s democracy is more important than its Jewish character. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO, told the EPIIC class that American support for Israel allows the Israelis to act with impunity. According to Telhami’s research, that impunity may not last forever. 

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