The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America?

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The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America? by Mohamed El-Bendary. Potomac Books, 2011, 211 pp.

Anti-Americanism remains an important problem in the twenty-first century even though relatively few scholars dedicate rigorous studies to this issue. Quite a few books have been written on the countless varieties of anti-Americanism (e.g., in the former USSR, in the Middle East, in communist or totalitarian countries like North Korea or Cuba). Some of these studies are historical, some are more theoretical, and others are just essays. The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind could be ranked as a documented essay, since it is written by a journalist with an academic background (i.e., an MA in journalism and public affairs from the American University). The author, Mohamed El-Bendary, knows both Middle Eastern and US cultures and worldviews since he was educated in both contexts, on both continents, and has served as a translator for Arabic-English.

The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind aims to explain “how the Arabs view the United States in the aftermath of 9/11” (p. 3). The main tools and vehicles used to capture Middle Eastern public opinion are the Arab media and surveys made during the previous decade. The author believes the American people need to understand how Arabs are different in their reasoning, given “the Arab mind and the cultural and political forces that shape its way of thinking—rather than display the empty slogans and stereotypical thinking” (p. 2).

In the first of eight chapters, the author explains his dual cultural background from Egypt and the United States. Chapter 2 describes Arab media dynamics (print press, radio, broadcast media, Arab satellites channels, and the Internet), and the author is not afraid to address the lack of plurality and limited freedom for journalists in many Arab countries (p. 12). He laments, “Although there has been much improvement in Arab journalism, it still does not exactly set a high standard” (p. 19). Inversely, chapter 3 highlights “the ascendance of neoconservatives to power in Washington” and the George W. Bush legacy regarding the Middle East (p. 23). Chapters 4–6 relate to US policies and democracy as seen from the Middle East media, which are often questioning the US presence in their world and the US dream from a critical perspective (p. 114). While many points could be discussed, we understand that these are debatable ideas (or ideologies) and biased views that are circulating without much counter-discourse in the Arab media and within the Arab public sphere in general. As the title indicates, one has to decipher what the Arab media have to say about the United States to understand and analyze what Arabs think of Americans and the USA. In that sense, the book delivers what it promises, even if readers might not like what they read.

El-Bendary’s book is rich in facts and statistics related to public opinion in the Arab world plus numerous quotes from various Arabic newspapers. Among many numbers and unexpected outcomes, one selected survey from 2007 targeting the Egyptian youth indicated that “20% of girls said they wish to travel to America, mainly for better knowledge or to walk freely in the streets without facing molestation, and then return to Egypt” (p. 7). Obviously, the contrasts and the differences between data prior to 9/11 and that from the months following are immense. For example, in a survey made in Egypt during 2002, Americans were characterized with many negative terms such as tyranny, supremacy, deceit, pro-Israeli, enemy, and so forth (p. 1). However, a survey made in early 2001 prior to 9/11 proved a majority of Cairo’s university students in media studies mostly held positive feelings toward the United States and even believed in the American dream (p. 2).

The last two chapters focus on how Pres. Barack Obama is perceived in the Middle East and at the moment of his historical visit, drawing from his speeches and how they were interpreted, often with enthusiastic terms in the Arab media (p. 152). These chapters contribute to bring balance, with many positive reactions in the Middle East media. Surprisingly, many Arabic critics appreciated President Obama’s humbleness, acknowledgements of previous mistakes, and his sense of balance in his speeches. The conclusion states that Obama has undoubtedly created a climate of confidence between the Arab world and the USA, and the author praises the recent actions made by the US administration: “I wish to say this to President Obama: The stature and standing of America in the Arab world is getting better since your arrival” (p. 155). Finally, a postscript includes some brief thoughts related to recent events such as the Arab Spring uprisings and Bin Laden’s death (p. 160).

In sum, El-Bendary’s essay is instructive and clearly offers a different point of view, which is always welcome. Many passages and excerpts from Arabic newspapers are available here in English, and this is one of the book’s strongest points. I was sometimes annoyed by the prejudicial terminology used by the author—even when paraphrasing, with caricatured expressions like “Big Mac Culture” (p. 42). Obviously, this is not an academic exposition with a theoretical framework and political concepts, although it includes endnotes, references for sources, and an index. The author does not use scholarly concepts such as ideologies, false consciousness, or discourses when describing the media; it is up to readers to situate what they read and learn about such categories in social theory. Academics and graduates students will find some basic materials to understand what citizens in Arab countries are exposed to every day. For scholars and graduates in American studies, international relations, or media studies who understand Arabic, this fine essay could possibly be helpful if they want to know what Arabs think of America and why they do so.

Yves Laberge, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."