Arab citizens, we are often told, overwhelmingly support resistance movements and radical leaders because they stand up for the dignity of Arab nations and defend their interests and values. In doing so, the reasoning goes, they look down on moderate leaders because they fail to give paramount priority to Arab causes like Palestine and Iraq. Not so, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project released last week. Based on data collected in mid-2009, the most popular Arab leader in the region is not the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah nor the Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, but the Saudi monarch King Abdullah. This probably has to do with his standing as the protector of the Holy Sites and his reputation as a fair, moderate and conciliatory ruler. King Abdullah is trying to transform and modernise his country, a thankless but ultimately more important task for the future of the region than what armed resistance can achieve.
Indeed, the poll's main finding is how mixed views about the Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movements are in the Arab world. There is no overwhelming adherence to these groups, except when they find themselves in armed confrontation with Israel, which triggers an understandable if fleeting sense of solidarity among the Arab people. One has also to understand these polls in context. It is easy to cheer for a radical leader in a faraway country when that country is under attack. This may explain why 52 per cent of Palestinians have an unfavourable view of the Islamist movement Hamas while 61 per cent have a favourable view of its Lebanese counterpart Hizbollah, and why the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fares well in the Palestinian Territories with a 47 per cent of favourability rating. But just 35 per cent of Lebanese have a favourable view of Hizbollah and only 37 per cent of the residents of Hamas-dominated Gaza support that organisation.
Ultimately, these numbers suggest that Arabs continue to give higher marks to leaders that preach moderation and do the hard work of governance rather than to those advocating radicalism. That voices of reason echo more in our region is an unsurprising finding. Let's hope that radical voices take heed of these results.