James Zogby spoke in the Student Center Ballroom Monday promoting his new book, “Arab Voices: What They Are Saying To Us And Why It Matters” as part of Eastern Michigan University’s Perspectives on the Middle East lecture series. Zogby serves as president of the Arab American Institute in Washington D.C. that he founded in 1995.
In addition to serving as president for the Arab American Institute, Zogby co-founded the Arab American Anti-discrimination Committee and served as executive director until 1984.
In 1984 and 1988, Zogby served as deputy campaign manager and senior advisor for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. He has appeared on CNN, and hosts a weekly call-in program called Viewpoint broadcasted in the Middle East on Abu Dhabi Television.
In opening, EMU Director of Gerontology Kristine Ajrouch acknowledged the many programs including the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, Criminology, the Department of English, the school of Technology studies, Eastern Michigan University Jewish studies, and Arab American faculty and staff association.
“Each of these programs, and as you can see there are numerous, have contributed in important ways, showing the commitment that EMU has to issues such as these,” she said.
Carol Haddad, professor and graduate adviser for the Master of Science, spoke about the Arab American Institute’s purpose.
“This organization promotes the participation of Arab Americans in U. S. political life,” Haddad said.
Attempting to understand the ideas and stereotypes Americans and Arabs might have, led to Haddad and Zogby’s interest in learning about the two culture’s views of each other.
“The misrepresentation and silencing of Arab, and Arab American viewpoints, initially a source of pain, would fuel our political activism and our passion for social justice,” Haddad said.
Zogby wrote his book based on data from numerous polls he had conducted. He described the use of polling as the respectful science.
“I call it the respectful science because what it does is it ask people and takes every viewpoint and it records it and it treats it equal to every other viewpoint,” Zogby said.
Each poll consist of 4,000 people from about six different Arab countries from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.
“It was fun from the beginning to the end and I’ve enjoyed talking about it every place I go,” Zogby said.
A major obstacle with Arab American relations is that Americans remain uneducated about the issues of Arab culture, Zogby said.
A poll Zogby shared with the audience, conducted in 2009, showed 37 percent of Americans were unable to identify Iraq on a map.
“We did it again in 2010 and it was at that 37 percent which means we’ve lost almost 4,500 lives in a part of the world where a little over a third of our people couldn’t even find it on a map,” he said.
According to Zogby, of the 2,400, four-year colleges and universities in America, only 60 have Middle East study programs. Three times as many students study the Japanese language than Arabic.
“We don’t know because our education system doesn’t prepare us, it doesn’t teach us,” he said.
Zogby said much of the negative attitudes towards those of Arabic descent come from negative stereotypes of Arabic people as they are portrayed in the media. Negative stereotypes are then reinforced upon people until they are accepted as fact.
“What’s worse than the stereotypes is the political culture which takes the stereotype, which become the popular conception of reality, and then transforms them into certainty,” Zogby said.
He said his reason for writing the book originated from his view that negative stereotypes come from a lack of knowledge between ethnic groups of Arabs and Americans.
“The connection between what we don’t know, what we think we know, and what we end up doing, and what becomes validated by our ignorance and our being convinced by our political leadership, is a really dangerous one,” Zogby said.