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Muslim Youth: Between Two Worlds


Today's Middle Eastern and North African youth under the age of 25 are caught between two contrasting cultural trends: a westernizing, consumer-oriented influence and a new Islamic current.

The cultural fault line, as some analysts call it, is evident in major Arab cities where American-style shopping malls and pop culture mix with western-influenced Arabic music and Islamic calls to prayer. Most analysts say westernization is a byproduct of a shifting world.

"Globalization is affecting the social fabric of Arab and Muslim societies," says Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "There is tremendous attraction to western pop culture. You have tens-of-thousands of young Arab and Muslim men who are basically dressed in western clothes, carrying American and European mobile phones, talking about western music," says Gerges. "And globalization is also producing a heightened sense of an Islamic identity, and the return to Islam is a defensive response to this onslaught of globalization that's seen by most Muslims to be threatening their identity."

Some experts say this Islamist revival includes reformists, mainstream moderates and extremist fringe groups. Samer Shehata of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies says the most interesting is a modern school of Islamist thought spearheaded by highly educated young people who yearn for more social and political involvement in a region that has lagged behind in democratic reform.

"They talk about things that make sense in the West - - but with an Islamic discourse. They talk about social justice, keeping leaders and governments accountable, participation in decision-making and national self- determination, and the importance of independence," says Shehata. "And if we look at political movements in Lebanon or Egypt or Palestine or Morocco, we'll see that a very large segment of the people who make up these organizations are younger, not necessarily below the age of sixteen, but younger members of society [i.e., those in their mid-twenties]."

Many analysts attribute this new thinking to the increased availability of satellite television and the Internet that are difficult for local governments to control. And recent studies show that the free flow of information contributes to favorable views of western ideas in some countries in the Middle East.

Cultural Shifts

Surveys conducted by sociologist Mansoor Moaddel, of Eastern Michigan University reveal significant cultural shifts. "We cannot say that all Islamic countries have a similar political and cultural tendency. But modern values are much more popular. The idea of national identity is relatively stronger than the idea of Islamic identity among Iranian and Iraqi respondents, 18 years and above [up to 25 years of age]," says Moaddel. "And in Iraq, there is increasing support for the separation of religion and politics. In Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, there is an increase in support for political Islam. In Iraq, Iran and to some extent, Saudi Arabia, it is not the case. So the trend is toward modern values."

But many analysts warn that the flood of information from around the globe leaves millions of young people in the Middle East politically disconnected and economically neglected. According to U.N. estimates, unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa region are the highest in the world at about 22 percent. Some estimates put the number of unemployed in the Mideast alone at about 25-million people.

Tens-of-millions of those unemployed are young people under the age of 21, says Georgetown University's Samer Shehata. "What that means is that it [i.e., this population of young people] puts tremendous pressure on the economy to be able to provide jobs and adequate employment and employment at sufficient living wages for those people. And that's not the case in the Arab World. There is tremendous unemployment in different countries," Shehata says and adds, "In a place like Egypt, for example, we're talking about unemployment of about 20 or 25 percent. And that has social and political consequences."

Pent-Up Demand

"Obsessive consumerism is whetting the appetites of young Muslims in the tiniest and poorest neighborhoods in the Muslim World. How do you satisfy rising consumer expectations in declining economies in the Middle East?," asks Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College. According to Gerges, high unemployment among millions of young people who are bombarded with consumer messages and exposed to the lifestyles of youth around the world, could lead to social and political upheaval.

"Between 30 and 40 percent of the Arab population either live in poverty or below the poverty line. So if you combine rising consumer expectations with declining economies and poverty, you are going to have a serious problem on your hands. Revolutions take place when expectations are not low, but when expectations are higher," says Gerges.

Some analysts suggest that westernizing trends in the Middle East and North Africa are just fads that will attract youth only temporarily. In contrast, they argue that the Islamist trend will continue to surge. But others say that whichever way the cultural fault line goes, western-inspired consumerism in the region and the higher expectations that it brings are here to stay.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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