International Youth Day: What Middle East youth want should matter to Americans

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Today is International Youth Day, and tonight HBO premieres “Our Boys,” a 10-part series about the 2014 murder by Hamas militants of three Israeli teenagers and the revenge murder of a Palestinian youth found burned in a forest in East Jerusalem.  

It’s not clear whether HBO realized the connection to a day asking the world to consider the needs and wants of its youth, when it launched the gripping, dark story of youth aspirations disrupted and lives ended. The coincidence is important, as a bulge of unemployed youth in the Middle East is amassing with time, and knowing what young Arab men and women want and care about for the future is important not only to their home countries but to the nations in the world with stakes in the region — to Israel, Europe, Russia, the United States and others.

In “Our Boys,” Israel Security Agency investigators search in vain for three Israeli boys kidnapped by Hamas agents. The disappearance of teens Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah rocked Israel and radicalized some elements of Israeli society that demanded retribution, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Some radical religious leaders called for a violent response to the disappearance and what soon was learned to be the murder of the three teenagers. Two days later, Arab teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir — a youth who enjoyed gaming on his smartphone and dreamed of one day joining his cousin in America — was found murdered and burned.

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One of the convicted participants in Khdeir’s murder, named Avishai in the HBO series, had become trapped in the rage of his uncle, Yosef Chaim Ben David, a rabidly anti-Arab settler, who harassed the young boy to suspend his studies at Yeshiva. What unfolds is a story of the fraught struggle between the rule of law in Israel and Palestine against ethnic and religious tribalism on both sides. In this story and in real life, three Israeli citizens were convicted and received lengthy prison sentences for Khdeir’s brutal murder.

Religion, tribe, place, all contribute to ongoing trauma in the Middle East — between Sunnis and Shias, between the privileged and the demeaned, between Jews and Arabs and Christians, between pragmatists who want things to improve and ideologues and fanatics who can’t see a way to live beyond their respective obsessions. 

Knowing what Arab youth actually want their societies to deliver and what they aspire to be can help neutralize the ethnic, religious and tribal grievances that have raged for so long in the region. Knowing where the next generation wants to go can help the West make the right bets on these countries and their peoples.

Among the findings of the annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, a research study involving more than 3,300 face-to-face interviews of Arab men and women ages 18-24 from across the region, are a deep desire to lessen religious control and determination of their lives. The study included interviews of youth from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen. This year, Qatar and Syria surveys were not included. There was equal gender participation in the project, and a geographic breakdown of interviews within these countries is available at the website of the 2019 report.

To benchmark against the cycle of religious zealotry and murders in the “Our Boys” story, 66 percent of youth agree that religion plays too large a role in the Middle East, whereas 24 percent disagree and 10 percent don’t know; 79 percent of Arab youth, drawn from across the Middle East’s North Africa region, believe religious institutions need reform. Concerns about religious overreach have grown substantially, as the youth view that religion played too large a role was just 50 percent in 2015.

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Among the obstacles believed to be weighing down the Middle East were, in ranked order, the rising cost of living, unemployment, lack of Arab unity, slow economic growth, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the war in Syria, terrorism, lack of democracy and so on.

Other headlines of the report are that 78 percent of Arab youth are concerned about the quality of education they receive; 53 percent want to pursue higher education in a western country. A disconcerting trend is that, since 2016, views that the U.S. has become an adversary have nearly doubled among young Arabs, while views of Russia as an enemy have fallen from 63 percent to 41 percent.

Arab youth want the conflicts in their region to end. They want the Syrian war to cease but have increased concerns about the Palestinian-Israeli situation. Interestingly, asked to pick a nation second to their own where they would most like to live, the UAE emerged as the top pick, followed by Canada and the U.S.

Fifty-seven percent of Arab youth say drugs are easy to get in their country and drug use is on the rise, with very high response rates of 68 percent in North Africa and 70 percent in the Levant — but still 32 percent in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.  

On the region’s e-commerce front, which has topped $28 billion, 71 percent of young Arabs have shopped online over the last year, compared to 53 percent last year.

And social media has far surpassed traditional news outlets as sources of choice for information, with 60 percent arguing that social media are more trusted than traditional media. WhatsApp is the chief source of information for youth in the GCC; Facebook is preferred in North Africa. YouTube is very popular and relied on through the region.  

This data matters in that it shows that secularism, commerce, stability and high-quality education are priorities for emerging generations of Arab youth. Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Chinese and Russians have a chance to see beyond fear and convulsion in the region and work to connect with those who want to build something far better than is the case today.   

When Simon, the Israel Security Agency terrorism investigator played by Shlomi Elkabetz in “Our Boys,” worked to uphold the rule of law and convict fellow Israeli citizens, he elevated the modern over the archaic — and that is clearly what Arab youth want in their own countries. 

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @SCClemons.

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