Arab Youth view ISIL as major Mideast Obstacle, want less Religion

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The annual Arab Youth survey conducted by pollsters Burson-Marsteller is out, reporting on 3500 interviews with Arabs 18-24 years of age in 16 countries.

Those of you who have read my recent book,
The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East
, won’t be surprised at the findings.

Arab youth think there is too much religion in public life. Only 29% actively disagree with this sentiment. This finding tracks with the findings I reported from Pew– that the Arab Millennials are generally somewhat less observant than their parents, and in the generation gap on this issue is particularly large in Tunisia and Lebanon. Interestingly, the youth of the conservative Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman) feel more strongly against religion in public life than do Levantines and North Africans (though in N. Africa twice as many people feel there is too much religion in public life as demur.)

The single biggest obstacle these youth see to a more successful Middle East is Daesh (ISIS, ISIL)! Indeed, nearly 4 in 5 said that they were concerned about its rise. Not only does the phony caliphate attract almost no support but 80% said they wouldn’t favor it even if it gave up its violence and gory spectacles. In accordance with this negative attitude toward Daesh, a plurality of the youth identified terrorism as the second biggest obstacle the region faces.

My book was widely and very positively reviewed. But one downside of coming out in July, 2014, three weeks after the fall of Mosul to Daesh, was that reviewers wanted to know why there was nothing about Daesh in it. But it was about secular-minded youth in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and that was before Daesh got a toehold in Sirte and before some radicals in the Sinai franchised themselves as Daesh. The New York Review of Books actually put a picture of Daesh fighter on the page where my book was discussed. My book was about liberal and leftist youth in a different part of the Middle East.

I was upset. Because the Daesh narrative is a relatively minor phenomenon in the region and a flash in the pan, but the generation of young Arabs I studied has already done great things and is poised to do more, and it is relatively secular-minded.

In this survey, the youth are cynical about Daesh. The leading explanation they gave for its rise is unemployment.

They are worried about rising sectarianism. And, they are more concerned with stability than regular elections. Except in Egypt, they have a certain amount of buyers’ remorse for how their revolutions have turned out.

And they’re worried about youth unemployment. Less than half think good jobs are available to them in their area.

But they also think Daesh is a reaction against Western military dominance in the region (i.e. a reaction against humiliation). if you put together US troop presence in the region, the US invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli troop presence in the region, about a third of respondents felt foreign military occupation provoked the advent of Daesh.

The youth see Saudi Arabia and the United States as their countries’ most important allies. Other allies are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and France. France has come up in their esteem as an ally during the past year, displacing Kuwait from fifth place.

For Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian youth, Iran is seen as a major ally. This sentiment is regional– confined to the Fertile Crescent. In contrast, most other Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The general sentiment that the US is an ally is not found in Iraq. Nine in ten Iraqi youth see the United States as an enemy.

Mission accomplished!

Overwhelming majorities of youth want their national leaders to expand personal freedom and human rights for women. This sentiment is at 90% of respondents in Saudi Arabia.

So, not only are these youth dead set against Daesh but they have a feminist side.

5 Responses

  1. Here’s a worry, which I hope you might address: the gap between youth and power — and whether it will ever be closed.

    Reading your argument, one is immediately reminded of the situation in the US, where the younger segment of the population always measures as socially liberal, even (I believe) in the large swaths of the country conspicuously under the control of reactionaries. Looking at the ‘youth’ — under 40, under 30? — one might think that the deeply-rooted nastiness of US social mores has simply evaporated. Yet in many areas we are seeing the legal rebirth of a grim backwardness that’s not been public for 50 years or more.

    The depressing model behind the worries is, of course, 1968 and thereabouts. Youth and a lot more than youth was vociferously, actively against the war in Vietnam and everything that went with it. Not only were the effects nil, but by 1980 we got Reagan and the decades of rightwing ascendancy that followed, in which militarism continued its triumphant march and liberalism was bleached out of the Democratic party. The youth of that era made plenty of noise in the streets, but hardly reached the levers of power, and if in power, then no longer very distinct from their predecessors.

    Who would have thought then that we’d be what we are now? — looking very much the same, in many ways, as status quo ante that was supposed to have been transformed.

  2. Hopefully the future will be more secular, and therefore more rational, as youth in the middle-east, the US, and other places are pushing back against religion.

  3. If I understand your read on the survey, Arab youth are more secular then their elders, yet it seems the youth in predominately Sunni regions think the Saudi’s are a positive influence while in Shia areas believe it’s Iran. Seems to me the survey shows a zero sum gain for the future in the area.

  4. I’ve been posting on several Western websites since the internet first commenced. I’ve noticed a much greater tolerance for Atheism and dis- interest in religion among the several hundred people I’ve got to know well over the years. This is in USA, GB, Australia and Northern Europe.
    I don’t have any difficulty believing the educated young Arabs would have lost interest in public religion and may privately becoming atheists.

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