In Confrontations With Muslim World, Neil MacFarquhar Again Blames U.S. First

Strained relations with the Muslim world? Blame the United States, says UN Bureau Chief Neil MacFarquhar: "The problem, which 'Arab Voices' persuasively illustrates, is that Americans tend to project their fears and desires onto Arabs and Muslims rather than searching for common ground."
Neil MacFarquhar, the United Nations bureau chief for the Times, reviewed the "Arab Voices" by James Zogby (brother of prominent pollster John Zogby) for the Sunday Book Review. The tone of the review matched the pro-Muslim, anti-U.S. perspective MacFarquhar revealed in an interview with Charlie Rose on July 31, 2006, at the height of Israel's war with the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, when he lamented Bush "rushing bombs" to Israel to drop on Hezbollah.

"Arab Voices" comes festooned with blurbs from liberals Ralph Nader, Jimmy Carter, Bill Press, Arianna Huffington, and Chris Matthews. MacFarquhar liked it as well. From his Sunday review:

In Iraq, the United States Army often lacked the Arabic translators desperately needed to decipher documents captured from insurgents who were planting hidden explosive devices that killed and maimed American soldiers by the hundreds. In New York City, the opening of a charter school where pupils might master the intricacies of Arabic was all but thwarted by vociferous critics, many of them vocal supporters of Israel, who made it sound as if a terrorist training camp was opening in Brooklyn.

That kind of illogical disconnect, James Zogby argues in "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters," dooms much of what the United States is undertaking in the Middle East. The book can make for dry reading. It consists of poll numbers harvested mostly in the Middle East since 9/11 by Zogby International, a polling company run by the author's brother. But as Zogby suggests, demonizing the very people, culture and religion that the United States hopes to influence and change - rather than really studying what the Arab world says and thinks - is not a terribly smart approach.

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In the last few months, of course, the United States was gripped by the twin news stories of a marginal Florida preacher threatening to put a torch to Korans and of the fight over whether Muslims should be allowed to construct a cultural center, including a mosque, near ground zero in Lower Manhattan. Calmer heads made the point that American soldiers serving abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention other Americans with interests across the Muslim world, suffer the fallout from incidents like these.

The problem, which "Arab Voices" persuasively illustrates, is that Americans tend to project their fears and desires onto Arabs and Muslims rather than searching for common ground. Zogby opinion polls point to important contributions that Americans could make in winning Arab support. Finding a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute invariably tops the list, but improving education, employment and health care in the Arab world also matter. Yet instead of analyzing its policy failures, Zogby says, Washington ignores them or just shouts louder.

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Born in upstate New York to Lebanese Christian immigrant parents, Zogby has long been part of the Washington firmament. He is the founder of several Arab American organizations, including the Arab American Institute, which battles discrimination and lobbies for a less -Israel-centric Middle East policy. Many of the so-called experts on Islam who churn out negative stereotypes do so, he argues, to promote support for Israel; Arab Americans with real knowledge of the subject aren't interviewed, or they are labeled as biased. Yet among the more interesting poll results he cites are that Americans overall want to steer a middle course in the Arab-Israeli dispute and that Jewish and Arab Americans view a negotiated peace along similar lines.

MacFarquhar raised the brief, regretful criticism that Zogby "glosses over the faults of Arab leaders." But his overall opinion was favorable:

Still, it's hard to deny the validity of Zogby's larger argument. To succeed in the Middle East, the United States needs to listen more to actual Arab voices, and not let preconceived myths about the Muslim world dictate policy.

Back in 2006, MacFarquhar told Charlie Rose:

I'm in my mid-40s and who grew up in poor countries like Morocco, you know, they will tell you that when they went to school in the mornings, they used to get milk, and they called it Kennedy milk because it was the Americans that sent them milk. And in 40 years, we have gone from Kennedy milk to the Bush administration rushing bombs to this part of the world. And it just erodes and erodes and erodes America's reputation.