A new study from Ohio State researchers examines the impact of Al Jazeera on public opinion across Arab states, concluding that the news network strengthens Muslim identity among heavier viewers and thereby indirectly contributes to more negative views of the United States.  The tendency for the network to promote a trans-Muslim identity, poses unique challenges for public diplomacy in the region, conclude the researchers, a team led by my brother Erik Nisbet, a professor of communication at Ohio State.  “If there’s a growing transnational Muslim identity, the United State will have to reevaluate traditional foreign policy strategies that are currently based on dealing with individual countries,” says Nisbet.  “It will make diplomacy more complex.”

From the release by Jeff Grabmeier of the OSU Research News Service:

Residents of the Middle East who are heavy viewers of Arab television news networks like Al Jazeera are more likely to view their primary identity as that of Muslims, rather than as citizens of their own country, a new study suggests.

Because networks like Al Jazeera are transnational – focusing on events of interest across the region rather than those in any one country – they may encourage viewers to see themselves in broader terms than simply residents of a particular nation, the researchers said.

“The goal of these relatively new networks is not to represent specific national interests, but to appeal to audiences across the region,” said Erik Nisbet, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“They tap into the idea that all viewers are connected through a Muslim or Arab identity.”

The findings have important implications for the United States as it develops its foreign policy related to the Middle East, Nisbet said.

It is particularly significant because other research suggests that Arabs who identify themselves primarily as Muslim have a more unfavorable view of the United States than are those who see themselves chiefly as citizens of their country.

“Arabs who define themselves first and foremost as Muslims don’t necessarily have the same interests, preferences and perceptions as do those who adopt a national identity,” he said.  “They might view the United States differently.”

Nisbet conducted the study with Teresa Myers, a postdoctoral researcher in communication at Ohio State.  Their results appear in the November 2010 issue of the journal Political Communication.

The researchers used data collected between 2004 and 2008 by Zogby International and Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland.  Telhami and his colleagues conducted surveys of 14,949 residents across six Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

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