The youthful path to ending Middle East wars

On the sixth anniversary of the Arab Spring, the region’s youth are even more embracing openness and freedom. They might help bring peace from below.

AP Photo
The actor Liam Neeson, on a recent trip for UNICEF, listens to stories from Syrian and Jordanian students in Amman, Jordan.

Even though the Middle East is entangled in four wars and millions of refugees, many Arabs will mark an inspiring anniversary on Dec. 17. Six years ago a young entrepreneur in Tunisia, who was barred from selling fruit by corrupt police, started the Arab Spring with an act of self-immolation. His defiance and sacrifice led to pro-democracy protests that toppled four dictators.

Only in Tunisia, however, did the revolt achieve its democratic aim. Elsewhere, events led to a whirlwind of violence among tribes, sects, ethnicities, and nations as well as to the rise of Islamic State. While ending these conflicts remains a major world focus, the anniversary has renewed interest in whether the region’s youth – whose hopes and values drove the Arab Spring – might now help drive peace.

The numbers are in their favor. The Arab world has never had such a large share of young people – 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old. This week, two reports on the future of the Middle East focused on the potential of this group to bring change from below and possibly create a new social contract.

The region’s new generation is “the largest, the most well educated and the most highly urbanized in the history of the Arab region,” states the latest Arab Human Development Report from the United Nations. “Thanks to social media, they are more in tune with the world than ever. If only their rulers knew what to do with them.”

Their hunger for democratic self-government endures, their rejection of violent jihad remains high, and their support for political Islam has fallen, the report states.

The underlying values of the 2010-11 Arab uprising remain strong, undeterred by autocratic regimes. Polls show young Arabs are more socially open. Support for gender equality and civic involvement has expanded. More of them prefer secular rulers. These changes are partly driven by social media. Mobile phone use in the Middle East is above the world average. Two-thirds of Arabs using Facebook are age 15 to 29.

“These young individuals have on their shoulders the burden to navigate for their own survival, but also, by their doings, they are charting the future for their generation as well as the coming ones,” the UN report concludes.

The other report, released by Atlantic Council and written by former American diplomats Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, argues that the region has a realistic path to peace through its most important asset. “It has a tech-savvy, youthful population hungering for a better life,” the report states.

“Under the right conditions, it is possible to imagine a different kind of Middle East emerging over the course of the next generation. At the local level, communities would be driven more and more by the talents and energies of their citizens, who would have more autonomy over their local affairs.”

Much of this youthful energy is entrepreneurial. A recent poll found 36 percent of Arab youth want to start a business. Another survey found that for every 10 new successful enterprises, 2,500 jobs are created in the Middle East. That’s critical when youth unemployment averages about 30 percent.

Ending the region’s war may indeed require an appreciation for what started the Arab Spring: a young entrepreneur, seeking dignity, peace, and freedom.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.