CEDAR FALLS --- The events cascading across the Mideast and North Africa show why Americans should develop a better understanding of the region and its people, said the president of the Arab American Institute.
James Zogby, a Lebanese Christian who helped found the institute in 1985, said he believed many Americans' opinions of that area are based on myths, such as them hating American values or reducing the culture to a stereotype. And that, in turn, has influenced public policy.
"We have made mistake after mistake after mistake in the Middle East because we base our policies on myths and not reality," he said.
Zogby spoke at University Book & Supply as part of a tour to promote his latest work, "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying and Why It Matters." The book examines Arab and American attitudes toward one another through polls and anecdotes, though Zogby said it could help people understand what's going on in that area.
Zogby said the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wasn't attributable to just his repressive regime or the corruption but also because he was out of touch with rank-and-file Egyptians.
"In any country in the region, and even in those countries that don't change at all, they will have to be far more responsive to the needs of their own people than they have been in the past," he said.
However, Zogby said people should still be concerned with the region because it isn't clear what type of government will grow out of the unrest.
Still, Egyptians and others have high approval ratings for American institutions and values, he said. At the University of Northern Iowa, the largest bloc of international students come from Saudi Arabia.
But Americans have either an increasingly negative or misinformed view of the area, he said.
Zogby, who is also a senior analyst at the polling firm Zogby International, founded by his brother, John Zogby, said a 2009 poll by the group found a third of Americans couldn't find Iraq on a map. Similarly, he said, the poll showed a large group --- around 50 percent of Americans --- felt they needed to know more about Arabs.
He said media depictions of the Mideast and Arabs have affected those perceptions. When asked what Americans think about the word Arab, 80 percent of respondents said something related to violence or oil.
Often that can lead to elected officials ascending to office who may not have a firm grasp on Middle East issues.
"You're going to have people want to be president of the United States who don't have a freaking clue about that part of the world," he said.
Zogby said his visit to Iowa was aimed at promoting his book and not at influencing upcoming Republican precinct caucuses. However, he said the institute may get involved later. In the last presidential cycle, the institute worked with local groups to push Mideast issues.
"There are other things in Iowa than candidates," he said.