August 28, 2013

Arab Liberalism, Biased Selection, & Why Academics and Journalists Get the Arab World So Wrong So Often

I saw this link over at Ace's and took the time to watch the whole video of Elizabeth O'Bagy from the Institute for the Study of War break down who the Syrian rebels are.

The takeaway: the vast majority of Syrian rebels are liberals who's interests are congruent with US interests, or 'moderates' who could be swung to our side.

It's worth the watch. For what it's worth, I follow the ISW's work and am on their email list. They do good work, generally.

But I have a hard time believing the conclusions of it. We've been burned before. Western academics and journalists tell us over and over again, in report after report, that the vast majority of [insert name of group in Muslim country here] is moderate or even liberal.

Remember those heady days of the street protests in Egypt, when Western reporters turned their cameras towards protesters who said the things they wanted to hear? That this was all about democracy, human rights, flowers, and puppies?

The problem that Westerners have is that when we talk to people in the Middle East we talk to people who share our values. Our friends in the Middle East are liberals. So, when an academic or journalist goes to Egypt they crash on the couch of their buddy who they went to grad school with. The guy they use to chug beers with. The girl they had a brief but passionate affair with. People like us.

And then our buddy connects us with their buddies. And what do the friends of this over educated, Mac using, iPhone tweeting, beer drinking, nominally Muslim guy or gal look like? Why, he hangs out with a bunch of people like him. A bunch of other liberals.

So, our "researcher" gets a first hand view of the "Arab street" which, oddly enough, seems to be filled with people not so different than them. The people we meet at the hookah bar debating the relative merits of ios6 vs. Android's jellybean don't seem much different from the grad students down at the Kebab shop just off of Harvard square.

We conclude from our "experience with the Arab street" that any change will be a change for the better. From a more repressive regime to a more liberal regime. Shiny happy thoughts.

The problem with this, as you can see, is that our contact with the so-called "Arab street" is biased because our sample is non-representative. In order for a sample to represent the larger population is must be random.

I believe this is why so many people were fooled into thinking the Arab Spring! was a movement towards liberalism. Empirical observations made from biased samples mislead the observer to erroneous conclusions.

Politicians on "fact finding" trips make the same mistake. Of course John McCain thinks we should be supporting the Syrian opposition militarily. When McCain went to Syria, who did he meet? Well, other than a terrorist or two accidentally thrown into the mix, he met with the liberal/secular opposition. He met with the people he was meant to meet with. And this isn't a conspiracy, it's just a fact that if a US Senator wants to meet with people fighting the Assad regime and he asks the State Department to make arrangements then he will be introduced to the people on the State Department's speed dial. Al Qaeda isn't on their speed dial, but secular liberals are.

And so, too, do academics. I have to wonder where Dr. O'Bagy got her information from on who controls what territory in Syria? From her interview, if I'm understanding it correctly, she's been on the ground in Syria recently. I'm betting that she was shown around by ... her friends in Syria. See above.

Also, notice that on her chart on who controls what territory that a great deal of it is controlled by the "Syrian Islamic Front" who she describes as "moderates". But listen carefully to how she constructs the term "moderate". In this context, a "moderate" is any group that is not liberal but which is willing to work with the liberals and follow the chain of command. Sure, that's "moderate" in this specific context -- an ongoing armed conflict. But such "moderation" tells us nothing about how that group will act post-Assad nor does it tell us anything about the congruence of that group's interests and US interests. If our only interest in Syria is overthrowing Assad, then by that standard we should be supporting al Qaeda.

What I'm suggesting here is that without knowing more about Dr. O'Bagy's methodology, then I have serious doubts about the conclusions drawn from her study. Especially given the great number of similar studies which have suffered similar researcher bias in the past.

However, let us -- for the sake of argument -- grant that O'Bagy has not been mislead and that she is correct in that the vast majority of those fighting against Assad in Syria are liberals or moderates. A counterfactual analysis. Okay, so, the opposition wins. Assad falls. Then what? Do we really believe that once Assad falls that the opposition will unite in calling for free, fair, elections? That the al Nusrah Front will lay down its arms and become a minor political party in a multiparty parliamentary system? That fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq will, like Cincinnatus, return to the fields they were plowing before all this unpleasantness began?

It's not that I think academics and journalists are lying about what is happening in the Arab world, it's just that their experience is a very limited view of a much larger picture.

Except for the liars. The MSM employs more than a few of these.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 10:50 AM | Comments |