Youth concerns should determine Arab and Muslim priorities

April 17, 2016

More than 30 heads of state and government met in Istanbul for the 13th annual summit of the 57-mem­ber Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest umbrella group of Muslim countries. Significantly, for the first time in the history of OIC summits, a Young Leaders Summit was convened to discuss strategies for Muslim youth.

The focus on youth is fully justified and should also be part of the upcoming Arab League summit in Mauritania.

The upheaval and violence that have swept the Middle East and North Africa for the past five years were fuelled by the problems of Arab youth. The principal catalyst for regional instability has been the flammable mix of youth discontent with the malevolent exploita­tion of Islam.

Most Arabs, including young people, are worried about the Islamic State (ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. According to the Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, a majority of Arab youth say they see “the rise of Daesh” and the threat of terrorism as the “the biggest obstacle facing the Middle East”.

The opinions of young Arab respondents about why Muslim youths are attracted to ISIS shed light on the complexity of the radicalisation problem and the difficulty of addressing it.

Respondents cite many possible reasons but point to the “lack of jobs and opportunities for young people” as the primary factor. While unemployment remains a key driver of despair and hopeless­ness, it is not the only factor fuelling radicalisation.

Regional conflicts, nefarious interpretations of Islam, sectarian tensions (the majority of young people in Yemen, Jordan, Libya and Iraq say the latter are worsening) and resentment of the West are among other factors.

It would be glossing over the radicalisation problem to ignore the existence of a potential ISIS constituency among Arab youths. No less than 22% of Arab youths said they were not concerned about ISIS, while 13% say they could imagine themselves supporting the terrorist group if “it did not use so much violence”. Hardly reassur­ing.

Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and author of a book about ISIS, said, “Daesh still attracts a narrow audience” but “it is important to understand this source of appeal”.

Beyond the problem of jihadism, Arab youths face conflicting influences. They share their societies’ religious beliefs but resent the exploitation of religion to achieve political goals or block progress. According to the survey, 52% of young people in the Arab world, including 61% in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, said “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East”.

Young people are also clearly disappointed by the results of the 2011 uprisings. Only 36% — compared to 72% in 2012 — said they feel “the Arab world is better off” following the “Arab spring”.

Referring to the yearning of young Arabs for some level of prosper­ity and stability, Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation in Geneva, talks of “a new bargain” that could be “struck between the governors and the governed”. That bargain will have to include the promotion of modernist values.

Big majorities, according to the Arab Youth Survey, want Arab leaders to promote personal freedoms and human rights, including the rights of women. Arab and Muslim summits should take heed of that.