Q&A With Amaney Jamal

Amaney Jamal is the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and director of both the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the PIIRS-affiliated Workshop on Arab Political Development, the University’s scholarly hub for Arab politics. Born in the United States and raised in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank before moving back, Jamal has a unique perspective of the region. She teaches on topics including politics of the Middle East, democracy in the Middle East, gender and Islam and comparative politics. Jamal is also the principal investigator for the Arab Barometer project, which measures public opinion in the Arab world. 

How do Arab citizens view the United States? Has American influence in the region waned, and if so, how might the U.S. recapture its influence?

The United States is still perceived quite negatively by the majority of Arab citizens across the region, though we’re witnessing decreasing levels of negativity which reached their height during the Gulf War. Though there’s a wide perception globally that the U.S. has reduced its influence in the region, this is not the view in the region. The U.S. is still quite influential with its allies, including Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and the Gulf countries. With the Iran nuclear agreement, the U.S. arguably is even more involved in the Gulf than it has been before. So the influence of the U.S. is quite paramount. The key question facing the U.S. is whether it sees itself getting more involved in Syria. And it’s clear the U.S. does not desire “direct” involvement. But that’s a strategic decision not necessarily based on a commitment to reduce influence. Finally, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a deep source of concern for Arabs across the region and many would like the U.S. to play a more active and committed role to help reach a durable and peaceful two-state solution.

Why did the Arab Spring seem to turn out so badly throughout the Middle East?

As with all transitions to democracy, the road is not necessarily a smooth one. In the case of the Arab Spring, there are some obvious shortcomings. First, the region has had very little experience with elections that result in change of leadership. In the places where we saw these changes, there was more conflict. Deepening democratic accountability, including the acceptance of electoral outcomes, takes time. Second, as we have witnessed in several countries, existing authoritarian regimes are well-entrenched. Even in the face of mass protest and revolution, these regimes have managed to stay in place. Finally, on a more positive note, many analysts will note, that citizen voice and political engagement are on the rise. Despite the setbacks, Arab citizens on the ground feel more efficacious today than they did before the Arab Spring.

Has the Middle East grown more sectarian? Why?

Yes, indeed, sectarian tensions have flared in the last decade. The United States’ invasion of Iraq and its installment of a Shia government set off a tidal wave of sectarian grievances across the region. Unfortunately, ISIS and the current war in Syria are very much consequences of these inflamed sectarian tensions.

What is the appeal of ISIS in parts of the Arab world, and what is the best way it can be countered?

One of the key issues remains sectarian tensions. In a new study, my collaborators and I find that sectarianism matters a whole lot. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for ISIS’ violent and terroristic tactics. Further, ISIS appears to draw support from disenfranchised and poorer younger men who are drawn to the calls of radicalism and financial support by ISIS. Since there’s little public support for ISIS, countering this movement effectively will most likely require choking off its material and monetary support, military campaigns, and ensuring that those who cross the Syrian border to join ISIS are not allowed the ability to return with their jihadi doctrines to their home countries (whether in the West or the Arab world). Finally, for Sunni Iraqis who have joined the movement to counter Shia dominance, there needs to be a careful review and examination of the ways in which Sunni representation can be improved in Iraq.