Telhami explores Arab identity
Charlie Ducey | Sunday, April 6, 2014
In the latest installment of the “Ten Years Hence” speaker series, which asks speakers to analyze an issue’s effect on business and politics in the next decade, Professor Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland discussed the shift in Arab identity.
The lecture, titled “The World Through Arab Eyes,” took place Friday at the Mendoza College of Business.
Telhami said his interest in Arab identity began even before the chain of protests and civil unrest in Middle Eastern countries, including Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
“What got me interested was not so much the uprisings but the discourses that preceeded them,” Telhami said.
According to Telhami, the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords were among those critical discourses. More recently, he said he has focused on discourses regarding public opinion in the Middle East.
“In all cases I studied, rulers behaved as if public opinion mattered even when they could act against the public through autocratic regimes,” Telhami said.
To understand the importance of public opinion in the Arab world, Telhami said he utilized reliable research methods over a broad range of countries.
“I set out to have 10 years of public opinion polling in six Arab countries to understand how media habits have changed notions of identity and public opinion in the Arab world,” Telhami said.
Telhami said his survey asked citizens of six countries to rank the importance of three identifying traits: their nationality, their religious affiliation and their ethnicity.
“Overall, the trend was a decline in affiliation with the state, an increase in identification with Islam and a robust identification with Arab ethnicity,” Telhami said. “In other words, transnational identity overtook national identity.
“If one identifies as Arab, one feels affiliated with people from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, and if one identifies as Muslim, one may draw connections with people as far away as Malaysia.”
Telhami said the information revolution accounts for much of the change in identity. In particular, he said the Arabic-language media outlet Al Jazeera has provided citizens of Arab countries with news outside state-controlled television and radio stations.
“Media from outside the borders of a country places transnational identity at center stage,” he said. “When we asked citizens of Arab countries the question, ‘whom among your leaders do you admire most?’ they not only listed leaders in the Middle East but also included Hugo Chaves of Venezuela and the former French president Jacques Chirac.”
Telhami said the information revolution will continue to empower citizens of Arab countries.
“In my own opinion public empowerment in the Middle East, far from being episodic, is with us to stay,” Telhami said. “No one can put the genie back in the bottle.”