[Ikhras Note: The following is a belated publishing of an Ikhras book review of James Zogby‘s Arab Voices: What They are Saying To Us And Why It Matters. It was written shortly after Zogby launched his book tour with a party and reception at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Embassy in Washington in October, 2010.]
James Zogby couldn’t have picked a more appropriate setting to launch his new book than a party and reception at the Washington embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The event was hosted by “H.E.” Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, and, true to form, the following day Zogby slavishly thanked the Nahyan family representative: “I was so gratified by last night’s reception. Ambassador al Otaiba’s hospitality, his kind words of introduction and the great work of his staff provided Arab Voices with such a wonderful launch.”
The book is titled “Arab Voices: What they are saying to us and why it matters.” In explaining the objectives and motivation behind the book Zogby says “I wrote the book for two reasons…One [reason] is because the stakes are so high. We’re in real trouble in the Middle East…it’s not getting better”…The second reason, he explained, was to “shatter” the myths Americans have about Arabs.” Zogby, of course, is not going to shatter any myths or change any false perceptions. This is one of those grandiose claims he often makes about his ability to influence public policy and popular perceptions in the United States (US). As the omnipresent, self-appointed representative of Arab-Americans sets out to “paint the most accurate picture of the Arab people, explaining who they are to the American people”, we ask which Arab voices has he been listening to cocooned up in Washington since the 1970’s? Which Arabs is Zogby most familiar with? And is he qualified, and capable of candidly and accurately explaining the Arab world to the American public? For reasons we discuss below we believe Zogby is not only unable to do so, but is probably the last person in America who can explain indigenous Arab voices to a US audience.
The International and Domestic Context of US-Arab Relations
Given decades of belligerent US policies towards the Middle East, and their negative, often fatal, impact on the lives of millions of ordinary Arabs, it is critically important to speak candidly about the nature of the political relationship between the Arab world and the US even (especially) if it offends the sensibilities of the ruling class and its mainstream media. The complicity of the US in all of Israel’s crimes and its central role in maintaining the Zionist colonial-settler entity in Palestine, its support of tyrannical Arab regimes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the presence of an extensive network of American military bases, and periodic, low-intensity warfare on countries such as Yemen and Somalia are naturally the main factors that inform Arab public opinion and attitudes toward the US government and its presence in the region. These opinions and attitudes are completely unrelated and irrelevant to how Arabs may view the US political or economic model, American society and culture, and the American people themselves.
Within this international context, and with rising domestic hostility towards Arabs and Muslims (which Zogby recently described as a “myth”) including attacks on civil liberties and increasing repression of anti-war, pro-Palestine activists, we understand how difficult it can be for an Arab-American to speak candidly about the nature of Arab-American relations. This is especially true for someone who makes his living on the periphery of US officialdom. However, any effort to explain the Arab world to an American audience that does not challenge the basic assumptions of American political culture and foreign policy will inevitably fail. And because, as Zogby says, the “stakes are so high”, if he’s unwilling or incapable of doing so he should at least refrain from reinforcing the existing false perceptions by carefully tailoring his message to America’s cherished national myths. By failing to speak candidly, especially at this time, Zogby betrays the indigenous voices of the Arab world and the Americans that may want to hear them.
While the Washington establishment and US media may not accept any deviation from the official policy line which also defines the limits of acceptable criticism of that policy, an appallingly ignorant, deliberately misinformed and propagandized American public deserves much more candor from any truly knowledgeable and independent Arab spokesperson that takes it upon himself to explain the “voices” of the Arab world to an American audience. The single most critically essential issue that must be addressed in any effort to help build greater understanding of the Arab world is the discrepancy between the nature of the US role and policies in the Arab world, and the altruistic perception of US foreign policy held by many on the American street. With career considerations first, and foremost, on his personal agenda, and no significant Arab-American grassroots support or academic peers to hold him accountable for what he writes, this is the one issue about which it would be most difficult for Zogby to speak objectively, and ensures his book will fail in making even a modest contribution to his own stated objectives.
Zogby predictably points out that Arabs are opposed to US foreign policy, but do not hate Americans, but is there any person sincerely interested in understanding the Arab world unaware of this old cliché? And hasn’t it always been understood among reasonable people that the notion of a collective Arab hatred of America and Americans is a ridiculous (racist?) lie promulgated by anti-Arab ideologues with a political agenda, a group unlikely to stop making this claim no matter how much polling data Jim and his brother can provide. So after collecting “hard data, derived from more that a decade of polling” that provides incontrovertible proof over 300 million Arabs don’t sit around all day engaging in a collective hatred of Americans, what should serve as the obvious beginning point of any discussion on Arab-American relations, for Zogby, becomes the defining limit of what he can say.
Which Arab Voices Is Zogby Familiar With?
Although Zogby never misses an opportunity to mention his Ph.D and post-Doctoral studies in religion, which in Orientalist fashion the listener is expected to conclude provides him with unique insight into the religiously-structured Arab mind and society, he is no expert on the Arab world. Zogby was born and raised in the US, does not speak the Arabic language, was not trained in Middle East studies, and has been cocooned up in Washington since the 70’s. What minor and selective bits of information he may have gathered over the years comes from his experience on the fringe of the elitist world of Arab royalty, oil-Sheiks, and the embassies of pro-US, Arab dictatorships. Zogby enjoys a special relationship with the ruling dynasties of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has benefited immensely from their support over the years. He receives generous benefits from UAE royals which include regular junkets to Abu-Dhabi & Dubai, often under the guise of “teaching” or conducting bogus polls on behalf of GCC oil-Sheikhs, and a weekly, live call-in program broadcast by Abu Dhabi Television across more countries than it has viewers. Zogby has no understanding or appreciation for the real life experience of ordinary Arab citizens that live under autocratic rulers whose ambassadors he hobnobs with in America. Even if Zogby ever listened, through an interpreter, of course, to the diverse voices of ordinary Arabs, who almost unanimously condemn US foreign policy for, among other things, undergirding the dictatorial regimes that torment them, Washington’s political exigencies require him to ignore them.
When did Zogby, for example, develop any understanding of the status and role of women in Arab society independent of the colonial feminist ideology that frames discussion of this issue in the US when, and if, it arises which is usually when the US decides to invade or bomb a country. On a recent CSPAN program (Watch it here at 57:45) he expressed his own “surprise” that Arabs support gender equality, an indication of his own cultural biases and misinformation. On those occasions when Zogby has addressed the issue of women in the Arab world, he hardly deviated from the prevailing narratives and stereotypes, demonstrating a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the diversity that exists among Arab women from various regions, backgrounds, and socio-economic classes. This isn’t surprising given that the only Arab woman Zogby seems to know or have any contact with is Lisa Halaby (we decline to call her Queen Noor), someone about as representative of modern Arab women as her late husband was of revolutionary, anti-colonial Arab Nationalism. The normally bland and subdued Zogby can barely contain his child-like excitement in her presence, and comes in second only to Larry King in how many times he can refer to her as “Your Majesty” in one hour.
And when has Zogby expressed any interest or concern for the deprivation and exploitation of workers and peasants or the impoverished masses in the Arab world? When he’s not in the UAE busy touting the “business friendly” environment in the Arab Gulf states or fawning over a semi-literate, oil-Sheik, he can be found in Washington defending America’s friends in the region, the unelected, illegitimate autocrats referred to as “moderate Arabs” for their understanding of, and leniency towards, US wars and Zionism. Someone unwilling to challenge the myth of an altruistic US global empire, and highlight both the role of American imperialism and its client-regimes in the Arab world is incapable of speaking about the plight of the most destitute within the Arab world, a group for which these same vassals and their western masters are responsible.
And how can we expect anyone who beams with pride anytime he stands next to an Arab prince or Ambassador to address and shed light on Human Rights violations in the Arab world. Has Zogby ever criticized US-approved tyrants? Has he ever mentioned the lack of freedom and democracy in any Arab country other than the ones the US decides are unfriendly to “American interests” in the region? Has Zogby ever mentioned the exploitation and abuse of foreign laborers and maids in the Arab Gulf states who work under conditions that can only be described as a modern form of slavery? Will Zogby ever mention the trafficking of women or the voices of the sex slaves in “Saudi Arabia” or the UAE, the home of his favorite Arab Emirs and a high-end brothel for rich Arabs and foreign tourists? Had Zogby ever done so, the State Department would not be organizing speaking tours for him in the Arab world, the Saudi embassy would not underwrite his annual “Gibran Gala”, and his “H.E” would not host a party and reception to celebrate the launching of his vapid book.
Iraq and Palestine in Zogby’s World
On no issue is the careerism that drives Zogby’s “activism” and frames his discourse more glaringly apparent than in his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. His timid and mild criticism of Israel and the US government’s role as the enabler and accomplice in its crimes is strikingly incongruent with the scope and duration of Palestinian and Arab suffering and loss of life since the establishment of the usurping Zionist entity in 1948. Even when Zogby appears to speak out on behalf of Palestinian rights he carefully avoids any mention of the underlying racism of Zionism, and the illegitimacy of its colonial project in Palestine, two taboo topics in American politics that go to the heart of the conflict in Palestine. His position is much closer to the “moderate Zionists” of J-Street, a racist, anti-Arab organization within the pro-Israel coalition committed to the destruction of Palestine, than it is to the Palestinians’ legitimate demands, rights, and aspirations.
The same can be said about his utterly debased language towards the continuous 20-year US war on Iraq. After the destructive bombing campaign of 1991 on the pretext of protecting the “independence” and “sovereignty” of an artificial, US oil-colony established by the earlier machinations of western colonial powers, a genocidal sanctions regime was enforced by the US and its NATO allies which resulted in the death of over one million Iraqis, including over 5000 children every month. For eight of those years the sanctions were the official policy of the Clinton administration, a period that coincided with the apogee of Zogby’s political career. Zogby was a fan of Bill Clinton and would visit the White House with messages from his mother to the President. Clinton assigned him the title of “adviser on Arab-American issues”, quite possibly a consolation prize in lieu of what Zogby was hoping would be an ambassadorship to one of the GCC Sheikhdoms that support his one-man outfit. It was during that period that Zogby was also appointed to the Democratic National Committee’s Resolutions Committee.
During that now infamous 60 minutes episode which aired on May 12, 1996 Leslie Stahl asked then US Ambassador to the United Nations, and staunch defender of the sanctions regime, Madeleine Albright, about the death toll sanctions on Iraq have taken on the children: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it”? In response Albright said the following: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” After Albright was appointed Secretary of State during Clinton’s second term, Zogby organized a group of Arab-Americans to sing Happy Birthday to her. Since the 2003 illegal invasion and ongoing occupation, over one million other Iraqis have been killed, over four million uprooted from their homes, and an entire Arab society has been devastated. Listening to Zogby discuss Iraq, it is impossible to reconcile the scope of death and destruction inflicted upon the Iraqi people by a barbaric US foreign policy and invasion with his excessively polite criticism. Here again, and throughout the chapters in his book dealing with these issues, the disconnect between language and reality demonstrates a self-conscious awareness of the permissible bounds of criticism by an individual with an ambitious personal agenda. It also shows Zogby is a product of an American political culture that permits (often demands) the callous disregard for non-western human life.
As we have seen over the years, Zogby’s career has been filled with bizarre behavior. In addition to collaborating with members of the pro-Israel lobby and organizing a group of Arab-Americans to sing Happy Birthday to Albright, he also welcomed the appointment of fanatic Zionist Martin Indyk to a State department post during the Clinton administration and then secured a job for his son in his office. He has also attended “iftar dinners” at the Pentagon at the same time the US was dropping bombs on Iraq, and helping Israel do the same in Lebanon. Zogby has even described such ludicrous antics as evidence of “advances” and “progress” by Arab-Americans. Wearing his ethnicity on his sleeve and exploiting the Arab-American label, Zogby routinely claims his personal, social calendar should be explained and understood as a sign of Arab-American political empowerment. In reality, such lunacy is derivative of a moral bankruptcy, and can be understood only within the context of Washington’s political exigencies.
What Zogby Is Saying And Why It Doesn’t Matter
Zogby represents an elite subset of an earlier wave of Arab immigrants to this country with little or no connection left to the Arab world. In addition to the class divide, generational gap, and alienation from the Arab world which Zogby represents, he is also shackled with a set of self-imposed restraints made incumbent upon any individual pursuing a comfortable, air-conditioned career on the margins of American officialdom. Operating in Washington since the 1970s within a political environment that leaves no room for any significant deviation from the official line, Zogby has always maintained a well-tuned political antenna capable of honing in on official US policies and attitude towards the Middle East at any given moment. Zogby’s own personal experience with Arabs is also restricted to another elite subset of Arab royals, oil-Sheiks, and ambassadors representing American-approved dictatorships. This limited exposure, when combined with the self-imposed limitations mentioned above makes him the last person who should be listened to by anyone hoping to hear and understand the many diverse voices of the Arab world.
For those interested in the Arab world there are many experts that can be turned to, but Zogby is not one of them. And there is no reason to assume that anyone, by virtue of ethnic heritage, a chance of birth, has any unique insight to offer. Zogby’s book does not include anything new or offer any useful insights. By now his habit of weaving personal stories and anecdotes into a lexicon of American clichés has become familiar to those few among us who follow the activities of the omnipresent, self-appointed spokesperson of the Arab-American community. Ironically, Zogby correctly points out “Americans are getting false information on Arabs and the Middle East from so-called experts, who in fact lack understanding of the Arab World.” He’s right, of course, which is why, for anyone interested in hearing the indigenous voices of the Arab world, Zogby’s “Arab Voices” and what he’s saying about them simply doesn’t matter.
To learn more about James Zogby visit ikhras: http://ikhras.com/tag/james-zogby/