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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Why do They Hate Us? Does Juan Cole Have the Answer?

As I've written before, John Kerry probably won the Arab American vote by 2-1, and did better still among Muslim Americans (see Zogby's final exit poll too). This is in sharp contrast to Juan Cole's claim that John Edwards' support for Israel in the VP debate would cost him the support of these voters. Prof. Cole, an expert on the Islamic world, wrote: "With just a slight change in rhetoric, Kerry and Edwards could probably avoid alienating most of these Arab Americans and Muslim Americans."

Cole's mistake was to attribute much more importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it actually has among Arab and Muslim Americans. These voters were very upset about Ashcroft's infringements on their civil liberties, and also put a high priority on the same issues as most other voters: the economy, the war on terror, social issues, and so on. On a list of eight issues, "Israel-Palestine" was consistently rated as least important by Arab Americans.

My main point here isn't to mock Cole's ineptness when he writes about matters outside of his narrow specialty (that's just a secondary point). My point is that if Cole can misinterpret public opinion so badly in this case, how reliable are his assessments of public opinion in the Arab world?

A typical example of Cole's assessment is: "the razing of Fallujah is precisely the sort of action that may provoke an al-Qaeda response and will in any case aid in al-Qaeda's ability to recruit angry young Muslims." And of course, many analysts make similar claims.

Let me enumerate why it's a lot harder to discern the opinions of Arabs than of Arab Americans.

First, Arab and Muslim Americans, like Cole, are Americans. We can expect Cole to have special insight into the psyche of his fellow citizens, and also into the details of issues that motivate them, such as the economy.

Second, vote choices are concrete and relatively easy to measure, unlike support or membership in al-Qaeda.

Third, there is a fair amount of reliable polling data about the attitudes of Arab and Muslim Americans, while polling data from the Islamic world is sparse, and in important cases nonexistent (e.g., Saudi Arabia).

Fourth, America has a free press and freedom of speech, so we can read what Arab and Muslim Americans have to say about the presidential election, and who their organizations support. This isn't generally the case in the Arab world.

Fifth, Arab and Muslim Americans are a fairly diverse group (Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, or secular in religious matters; originally from various countries; Democrats and Republicans) but surely nowhere near as diverse as the billion or so in the many countries of the Islamic world.

Sixth, Cole isn't just discussing rhetorical support for Al-Qaeda, which is a view shared by millions or maybe hundreds of millions of Muslims (I don't know). He's discussing Al-Qaeda's recruiting, which is something that involves tiny groups of people: hundred or thousands. And out of hundreds of millions of people, there is a lot of room for small groups to have idiosyncratic views, even views entirely divorced from reality. If you look at the web sites of right-wing hate groups in the US, for example, it's not at all clear that they pay much attention to current events (here's one devoted to "racial holy war").

So I think that anyone who claims to be able to identity with any certainty the effect of the Iraq War on support for terrorism -- much less one particular battle -- is full of it.


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