Arab youth a force for change for years to come

Friday 08/01/2016
Tunisian young women take a selfie.

Washington - Young Arabs live longer, healthier lives and are more educated and tech-savvy than any previous generation in the region. However, they also face unemploy­ment and formidable housing costs which keep them reliant on parents and delay marriage and life as inde­pendent adults.

“Nowhere else in the world do youth have such a difficult time be­coming adults and only in the Arab world is the alienation of youth so powerful along every possible av­enue of adulthood-attainment,” wrote M. Chloe Mulderig in a paper published in 2013 by Boston Univer­sity’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

Because many young adults in the Arab world live with their par­ents and have time on their hands they have one of the highest rates of social media use in the world. According to a study by the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit, as of June 2013 the percentage of social media users in the Arab world between the ages of 16 and 34 was 77%. As of May 2014, 67% of 15- to 29-year-olds were Facebook users.

With so many youth connecting online, the boundaries of language, geography and censorship are being erased.

Nadia Oweidat, a scholar at Georgetown University, said that years of oppressive intellectual discourse has created a hunger for knowledge among young Arabs.

“After decades of censorship, this generation can now go online and read books and ideas that are still banned in their countries and they are doing so in unprecedented numbers,” she said. “Then they dis­cuss what they’ve learned with each other, and it is amazing to see their level of sophistication.”

A quick survey of online activity in the Arab world shows an under-reported grass-roots phenomenon: Young people using social media to debate controversial ideas and chal­lenge taboos and norms.

Ismail Mohamed, an Egyptian whose cyber persona is “The Black Ducks”, captures this trend at its boldest as a “preacher of atheism”. During his internet programme, which has more than 10,000 sub­scribers, Mohamed interviews Arab activists, scholars and ordinary citi­zens about how and why they came to embrace atheism.

Mohamed recalls his personal journey after a “typical childhood” in a pious Muslim household. Eve­rything began to change for him about three years ago, when he was 26 years old, thanks to unfettered access to the internet and infor­mation that had been previously unavailable to him, specifically the theory of evolution.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. So I sent emails to scholars all over the world, asking them if this theory was really true,” Mohamed said via Skype from his home near the Red Sea, where he lives with his wife. “After that, I started to question everything I had been taught in school, Adam and Eve and everything else.”

Jordanian film-maker Widad Shafakoj pushed cultural bounda­ries by revealing the institutional­ised discrimination against children born out of wedlock. Islamic juris­prudence is clear on protecting or­phans but leaves children born out of wedlock in a precarious grey area.

Shafakoj’s documentary Hawiya — Arabic for “identity” — shows how in Jordan these children are raised in rundown institutions and often reach adulthood illiterate. They are issued state identity cards without proper numbers, which hinders ac­cess to health care, higher educa­tion and employment. Shafakoj’s film was initially banned but ended up changing the law, which now of­fers equal protection and rights to the children.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where the slightest challenge can result in prison, public lashings or execu­tion, young people are pushing the boundaries.

Saudi activists Hisham Fageeh and Fahad Albutairi made a satiri­cal video No Woman, No Drive that gained millions of viewers world­wide. In a rendition of Bob Marley’s iconic song No Woman, No Cry, the duo lampoon Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers.

Albutairi’s wife, Loujain Alhath­loul, made her own mark when she was arrested for driving a car from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia to protest the ban.

These liberal movements are mushrooming organically and si­multaneously across the region as young people find each other on­line.

At the same time, many young Arabs are answering the siren call of extremism and jihad. Young people in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen find themselves in the midst of violence and displacement, of which the long-term traumatic ramifications are unknown.

Half of the Arab world’s popula­tion is under age of 24 and about 30% is under age 15, according to the Middle East Youth Initiative and the US Census Bureau. This trans­lates to a demographic bulge until at least 2030. Long after the “Arab spring” fades into memory, young Arabs will continue to be power­ful factors as they seek the same things that motivated them in 2011: economic opportunity, dignity, and freedom to express themselves.

“The broken promise of adult­hood can no longer be ignored,” Mulderig wrote. “Governments need to accept that these youth will continue to protest and express frustration if their needs are not met.”