Since the 2011 revolutions, International public opinion polls have been providing unprecedented information about citizens’ mindsets in many countries of the Arab World. Still, pollsters should beware of the cross-cultural pitfalls that can arise despite the politically-unfettered climates.
More than ever, public opinion in the Arab World counts. In those countries that have undergone radical regime-change, newly-elected governments cannot ignore what people really think. Previous authoritarian rulers did, and they were driven out of office before they knew what hit them. So today’s key actors, whether it is the new elites in power in Arab Spring countries, the governments that were able to weather the revolutionary storms, or the region’s international partners, all have learned to keep their fingers on the public pulse.
Opinion surveys help politicians assess their electoral fortunes. They also enable governments to avoid the dangers of the old guessing-games. For too long, rulers in the region could only conjecture how their populations would react if, for example, price subsidies were suppressed. In most instances, credible polling activity was not an option. The recently-released results of the Gallup-World Bank Poll (conducted in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon) would have been quite useful to North African and Middle Eastern governments, in decades past. Many would have been able to predict the bloody bread-riots, which frequently shook the region, before they happened.
With today’s freer political climate, pollsters can expect to receive reliable answers to any questions they ask. It was not always the case. Just a few years before they became desperate enough to launch a full-fledged revolt, Tunisians were deemed to be “the most optimistic people on earth” by an international polling organization. Its methodology was probably impeccable. But the political and cultural environments were certainly not.
Opinion polls are new tools in the region. Expressing one’s opinion freely is still a novel idea in many of the countries concerned. Since the 2011 revolutions, the Pew Research Centre polls have, for instance, provided public opinion watchers in the region with unprecedented snapshots of the public mood and with an extraordinary means of tracking social and political trends.
In its latest poll about the Muslim world, the Pew Research Centre has once again provided area specialists with a trove of information. But, without knowing it, pollsters found themselves sometimes in slippery terrain. Polling the public in the Muslim world about issues of morality does not necessarily yield reliable results, even if there are no political restrictions to polling anymore. Asking about cheating on their wives (or husbands), drinking alcohol, or engaging in homosexual behavior does not necessarily get you honest answers. This is true even in the West. Public opinion expert Herbert Gans cautions pollsters that poll respondents may “express what they feel, or believe they ought to feel at the moment.” But it is doubly so in the MENA region. In certain countries, as the Pew pollsters have themselves noted in their survey about the Muslim world, “morally sensitive questions” may not even get an answer. And when they do, it is not obvious that respondents will really express their deeply-held views. More often than not, international pollsters will get only the “morally-correct answers” when they ask questions having to do with what is conventionally perceived as “morally-incorrect behavior.”
The Pew Poll content raises a number of other issues regarding North Africa and the Middle East societies. Dealing, for instance, with the question of religion-instigated violence can be quite tricky, especially if one systematically tries to apply the same mode of questioning to respondents in all countries. The same questions do not fit all societies. Considering the near total religious homogeneity in the Maghreb and the absence of any problem of “Christian extremism,” it is difficult to understand why 12% of Tunisians and 5% of Moroccans would be “preoccupied with Christian extremism.” If asked the right leading-question, they might just as well have expressed a deep concern with falling meteorites.
The percentage of Tunisians (25%), Moroccans (20%), Turks (23%) and Egyptians (22%) who are concerned with “Muslim extremism” would have been more pertinent had a precise formulation of “Muslim extremism” been offered. Does it refer to armed groups, or to ideological hardliners? The difference is significant and quite crucial for countries of the region that are struggling to draw bright lines between extreme forms of legitimate expression and terrorist activities.
But nowhere is the wording of questions more treacherous than when a questioner tries to see if Muslims are willing to condone suicide attacks. The Pew Poll summary says that “Muslims in some countries surveyed in South Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region are more likely than Muslims elsewhere to consider suicide bombing justified.” 40% of Palestinian Muslims, 29% of Egyptians, 15% in Jordan and Turkey, 12% in Tunisia, 9% in Morocco and 7% in Iraq are said to agree with such a statement. Although the Pew survey writers try painstakingly to downplay the significance of such figures, it remains that Muslim respondents were, for some reason, given only the views of suicide-bombing apologists. They were asked: “Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies…Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is justified…?” People could have been told, also, “Some people think suicide bombings against civilians are abhorrent acts of terrorism.” Then they would have been asked to make up their minds. There is no guarantee the answers would have been less worrisome had pollsters offered respondents two points of views (from which to choose) and not just one. Still, hearing the two views would have given everyone a fairer shot at getting a more reliable answer.
International polls are some of the best help the Arab World can get, today, as its peoples embark on true apprenticeship of democracy. International pollsters, however, have to accept the notion that respondents in any region of the world have the right, more than ever before, to question the questions and not just to answer them.
— Oussama Romdhani is a Tunisian international affairs analyst.