Most evenings, you're likely to find 25-year-old Ahmad Deif at his mosque in Cairo, Egypt, organizing young men and women for his cause. You may also catch him recruiting at the nearby country club in Cairo's exclusive Zamalek section. And throughout the night, his cell phone chirps with calls from associates hoping to set up lectures and organize other groups.
At the heart of Deif's quiet Islamic rebellion is the pursuit of a modern Muslim world. â€œWe must redefine modernity for ourselves,â€? he says. â€œWe have to look beyond sporty dress and focus on modernity as wisdom, technology and the quest for new ways of thinking. We've been defeated over and over â€” militarily, culturally, emotionally â€” and that's why there is a Muslim revival.â€?
Don't confuse Deif with the militant Muslims plastered on the front pages of newspapers and on TV screens. His vision is of a Muslim world that embraces values and aspirations similar to those enjoyed by Americans â€” freedom of thought and speech, democracy and progress â€” but all rooted in Islamic teachings. His goal, he says, is to recapture the voice of Islam from Muslims who have misinterpreted the Quran. And he is just one of countless young people pushing for a social and cultural revolution throughout the Middle East.
In the year since the catastrophic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon catapulted the Middle East and the Muslim world back into the spotlight, coverage of the region has focused largely on the older generation's viewpoint â€” a generation that represents only a third of the 380 million people across 20 Middle Eastern countries. Lost in much of the discussions are the dramatic changes occurring among Arab youth, who are looking both inward and outward for new direction and a modern voice.
Talk to these young people in the Middle East â€” as this reporter did in a series of trips across the region between November 2001 and this past July â€” and you will hear a similar refrain. The world, they will tell you, is changing, and they must change with it. These young adults, who are just now coming of age in their late teens and early 20s, are the product of a Middle East Baby Boom, a demographic phenomenon occurring from Cairo to Damascus, from Algiers to Tehran.
Beginning in the 1970s and continuing well into the 1990s, a dramatic drop in infant mortality rates, coupled with migration and high fertility, triggered a population surge across the Middle East. According to the Population Reference Bureau, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., the region's population growth rate has become the highest in the world. The area's population tripled, to 380 million in 2000 from 100 million in 1950. Today, close to two-thirds of those 380 million Middle Easterners are under age 25.
The sheer number of these Arab Boomers will give them more influence over the course of their nations than any other generation before them. And as they strive to find some common ground with the rest of the world, they will seek even more influence, researchers like Nasser Hadian, director of the graduate faculty of law and political science at Tehran University, believe. â€œWhat the youth want is a better life and a better standard of living, with the democracy of the West, but with a flavor of their own country,â€? says Hadian. â€œThey have been able to see the rest of the world. That's why they want changes.â€?
What they see is made possible by the very symbols of modern life â€” satellite TV, the Internet, cell phones â€” all connecting them to a world their parents never knew. And that, says Cairo University political science professor Mohammad Kamal, makes the desire for change that much more palpable. In Amman, Jordan, Mohammad Talal al Yohiedi, a 21-year-old living in a Palestinian refugee camp, laments his parents' missed opportunities to create a better life. â€œIt's time for us to move on and learn from others,â€? he says. In Damascus, Syria a 21-year-old young woman named Benan, who requested that her full name not be included, watches the rest of the world on satellite TV and wonders why she is missing out. â€œWe all see the differences now,â€? she says. â€œWe're under pressure here and see freedom [abroad].â€? And in Cairo, 23-year-old Kenzie Mourtagy works to redefine her sense of Islam, heavily influenced by American Muslims she sees on TV. She is embracing freedom and the ability to practice as she chooses. â€œThis is all about being pure in the heart, being good to people and really feeling God,â€? she says. â€œI think that I am really mixing Islam with a modern way of life.â€?
THE BULGE PROBLEM
The quest for modernity doesn't necessarily mean the violence that colored the Middle East during the past several decades is a thing of the past. To be sure, there's plenty of reason to be concerned with any youth bulge. Indeed, the one generalization demographers are willing to make is that youth bulges disrupt the social equilibrium, invariably inviting turmoil and drastic change.
Gary Fuller, director of population studies at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the youth bulge in Muslim countries since the 1980s and has advised the CIA about the effects of young populations worldwide. Demographic shifts can predict political turmoil and social unrest around the world, he says. â€œAll societies have an ideal age structure,â€? notes Fuller. â€œIf you violate that balance, you naturally create new challenges and instabilities.â€?
As examples of such instability, Fuller points to the increase in political turbulence throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia, all of which coincided with a peak in the regions' youth population. In much the same way, he says, the peak of the U.S. Baby Boom occurred in the late 1960s, when flower power and numerous social and political movements thrived. As the population of young Arabs peaks sometime in the next decade, he adds, one can infer that further instability in the Middle East is likely.
Youth bulges put pressure on all state institutions, especially those in education, health care and social services. In much of the Arab world, the past decade saw a precipitous decline in standards of living as education levels rose. Unemployment is now as high as 30 percent in some areas. Even in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf, many college students have been caught by surprise upon graduating and being unable to find work. And, in turn, a drop in income has begun to change their social and consumer habits. (See sidebar, below.)
There's a term for the vast group of unemployed youth in the Middle East: Hayateen, or the men who lean against walls. Those walls, warn many political scientists and demographers, are the fire that fuels Arab kids' discontent. â€œWhat I see is there are many young, illiterate and jobless people everywhere,â€? says Akbar Ahmed, professor of International Relations and Islamic Studies at American University. â€œThey're simply saying, â€˜We want to change our lives.â€™â€?
Rapid urbanization has also exacerbated the unemployment problem. In most Arab countries, migrants continue to pour into cities in search of jobs and a better future. In 1960, only a quarter of the Arab population lived in cities, according to the Population Resource Center, another think tank in Washington D.C. By 2001 that figure had risen to 57 percent, and is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2015. The vast majority of those moving to the cities are young, says Brian Nichiporuk, associate political scientist at the Rand Corporation. And along with their relocation has come a significant cultural dislocation.
The lack of democracy and personal freedom in most Middle Eastern countries are of concern to many. In July 2002 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a scathing report on development in the Arab world, pointing to the lack of freedom as a primary cause of slow development and faltering economies. The wave of democratic reforms that transformed governance in many countries in Latin America and Asia in the past two decades has largely bypassed the Arab countries, the authors of the U.N. report say.
In most cases, a powerful executive branch exerts power over all other branches of government, and is typically free of any checks and balances. This situation has, in turn, squelched foreign investment, hampered technological development and dampened efforts at industrialization, the authors note. Adds John Zogby, president of polling firm Zogby International in Utica, N.Y., â€œIt's impossible not to expect any major change out of all this. We've got tens of millions of young Muslims, a lot of them are men, and you see a lot of the young men with nothing to do. There's a real potential for dynamism â€” and dynamite.â€?
For all the bad news, there is also some good news. Simple forms of democracy and reform have sprouted in disparate locations, from Jordan and Lebanon to Kuwait and Tunisia. In addition, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations throughout the region are working to build institutions of civil society, according to Rami Khouri, a syndicated political columnist in Jordan. â€œThere's a dynamic attempt within many of these societies to try to solve their own problems,â€? Khouri says. â€œThere's dynamism within civil society, but it just hasn't reached a strong enough stage yet.â€?
When it comes to dynamism, no nation holds greater promise than Iran, not an Arab country per se but an important regional power, where a reform movement has centered on the development of civil society. Frustration with the deficiencies of Iran's Islamic revolution has led to a new revolution driven by the younger generation, which is more open to Western ideas and is demanding more liberties, says Tehran University's Hadian. Even as Iran's hard-line conservative clerics have sought to wrestle control back from reformers like President Mohammad Khatami, the reformers have continued to put up a dramatic fight, evidence of the energy behind their drive. In the process, Hadian notes, Iranians now appear to be the most open to American values of any Muslim country.
Even more encouraging is the gradual rise in the position of women in the Middle East. While images of women in burkas and headscarves are potent symbols of their subjugation, improvements in women's literacy rates in most Middle East countries are proving a catalyst for change. To be sure, says the UNDP report, Arab women remain far less literate and have less political power than Arab men. Still, those Arab women are becoming more educated, and are having more of a say in their family's daily life, researchers at Greenwich, Conn.-based NFO WorldGroup indicated in a recent report. (See sidebar, page 58.)
Steve Hamilton-Clark, managing director of the Middle East & Africa regions at NFO, says the clearest sign of this is in the number of women who are breadwinners in Arab families. According to the UNDP report, Kuwaiti women accounted for 24.7 percent of earnings in 1997, while Egyptian women accounted for 22.1 percent. Even in Saudi Arabia, where debate continues about whether women should be allowed to drive cars, women contributed 10.4 percent to the country's earnings.
Indeed, the increased cost of living has led younger men to value women who work. Young men interviewed for the study, Hamilton-Clark says, cited the rise in women who earn their own living as an important factor in choosing a suitable bride.
Women, for their part, are waiting longer to get married, says the NFO executive. Whereas Arab women have traditionally married at age 18, they are increasingly waiting until they're in their early to mid-20s, he reports. â€œ[Arab] women are now able to have an adolescence and there's now a period to build an identity,â€? says Hamilton-Clark. While that has led to higher divorce rates, he notes, it has also changed family dynamics.
Yet it is the access to technology and information that is likely to have the biggest effect in the region. In recent years, almost every Arab country has legalized ownership of satellite dishes, which can now be bought for less than $100. Government-run television once spoon-fed propaganda and crafted the picture of the world abroad. Now the satellite dish is beaming political debate and discussion into Arab homes, where everything from Disney to CNN to Arab news channels are landing in living rooms. The new media is influencing Arab Boomers to seek a different life than their parents chose.
Take Zen-TV, based in Beirut, Lebanon, which has fashioned itself as the voice of Arab youth. The channel targets 15- to 30-year-olds, offering a mix of hip entertainment, news and talk. Launched in early 2001 by satellite broadcaster Future TV, which is closely associated with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Zen-TV (pronounced â€œzaneâ€?) is seeking to reflect Arab Boomers' anxieties and aspirations while also offering solutions. Judging by the hundreds of e-mails that pour in every day from throughout the Arab world, its producers believe they have touched a nerve. â€œArab youth want [us] to be the voice that they don't dare speak,â€? says Mimi Raad, the station's channel coordinator. Although Zen's programming tackles taboo subjects like sex, drugs and AIDS, the producers say they do it in a manner that does not offend traditional sensibilities.
â€œArab kids have two sides to them,â€? continues Raad. â€œThey are connected to modernity, yet they respect their culture and traditions. So we [want to] be bold without being vulgar.â€?
The 24-hour channel has a host of programs, ranging from fashion and Arabic music to sports and the nightly news. One of the more popular programs is a talk show in which several young adults hang out in a loft, cook a meal and chat about their anxieties and ways of dealing with them.
The biggest surprise, says Cat-Ramsey Fayad, a 26-year-old neuropsychologist who leads a weekly segment discussing emotions, is the constant struggle to combine Western ideals with Arab traditions. â€œThey see a lot of things on TV that they try to adapt to their own cultures, and there's an inevitable conflict,â€? says Fayad. It comes as no surprise to her that sex is the most popular issue, but many youngsters also discuss their dissatisfaction with the society around them and with the slow pace of change.
In turn, teachers like Cairo University's Kamal notice a growing openness to new ideas. â€œMy students have more access to information coming from the outside,â€? says Kamal. â€œThey see democracy breaking out in other countries and wonder why they don't see the same thing happening in theirs.â€?
Kamal says his 18- to 20-year-old students have a higher level of political awareness than their parents. He sees this generation as one seeking to combine democratic reform with liberal Islamic ideals. In much the same way, Hazem Ibrahim, a 26-year-old student in Damascus, says that technological advances have helped shape many of his friends' vision of the world. â€œWhat we are struggling to say is that you can have modernity without necessarily being Western.â€?
Change is even more evident in younger kids. In a small village about an hour outside of Amman, Jordan, Nadira Muawiah, an elementary school teacher, has watched her students surpass much older kids in questioning the world around them. â€œThe kind of things they're thinking about and asking about are different,â€? she explains. â€œThey seem to be more worldly and intelligent.â€? For example, her Internet-savvy students have taken to downloading Shakespeare's plays and researching what the plays mean.
Yet what the cultural changes mean, and the pace of change, are far from certain. As Arab countries struggle to keep up with the youth bulge, there is little illusion that the next several decades will be peaceful. Still, glimmers of hope underscore an opportunity for positive change. And experience suggests that cultural and social shifts are likely to emerge from a youth bulge.
In the case of Arab countries, demographers like the University of Hawaii's Fuller say the youth bulge presents an opportunity for democratization and liberalization. Indeed, if Arab countries follow the path of Latin American nations, the opportunity may be even more dramatic. After all the turmoil of the 1980s, many of those Latin American countries emerged with resilient democracies.
â€œGovernments [in the Middle East] used to be able to control things better through propaganda,â€? says Kamal. â€œThe new generation has [articulate] arguments, and it's not so easy to manipulate them. For them, it's not a question of whether to have democracy and freedom, but rather a question of when they will get it.â€?
The Numbers Behind the News
A young, mostly Muslim, rapidly growing, largely poor population.
Contrary to most stereotypes, the average Muslim is more likely to be Asian than Arab, poor rather than oil rich, and urban instead of rural. There are an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims from Africa all the way to China. The largest Muslim country is Indonesia, with 190 million Muslims, followed by Pakistan, with 144 million Muslims. The third largest Muslim population is a minority in India, where there are about 120 million Muslims. The Middle East, our focus, accounts for 380 million people, of which 95 percent are Muslim.
Of course, making any generalization about a group of 20 nations that stretches from Africa to the borders of Asia can be perilous. But one accepted fact is that most Middle Easterners are young. A stark shift that began about two decades ago has culminated in a population pyramid, with younger people continuing to widen the base even more. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the median age in Egypt and Algeria is now 20; in Lebanon it's 18, and in Iraq it's 17. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau's International Programs Center predicts that by 2004, those under 25 will account for more than half of Egyptians (54 percent), Iranians (56 percent) and Jordanians (57 percent). The under-25 age group will represent 60 percent of the population in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and 63 percent of the population in Iraq.
Similar youth trends can be seen in much of the developing world, including many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. But the Middle East forms the world's largest contiguous region of mostly young people. And the Middle East's population mushroomed to 380 million in 2000, almost four times the level in 1950, and faster than any other region in the past half century, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Behind the sharp increase are drastically improved health-care facilities and plummeting infant mortality rates. According to the PRB, the introduction during the past two decades of modern medical services and public health interventions â€” like antibiotics, immunization and proper sanitation â€” have brought death rates down rapidly. On average, the think tank reports, infant mortality rates dropped to 50 deaths per 1,000 births in 2000, from an average of 200 per 1,000 in 1950.
As more babies survive, birth rates have also remained high. On
average, population growth remains about 3 percent in many Arab
countries, compared to 2 percent globally. With concerted efforts,
birth rates in countries like Egypt, Iran and Pakistan have begun
to fall, but not steeply enough to stem the youth bulge. To be
sure, some countries have seen dramatic drops in birth rates: In
Iran, the average birth rate has fallen from 5 births per family to
2.1 over the past decade. Yet the number of new families that will
emerge from the Middle East Baby Boom means the effects of the
lower birth rates will take at least a generation to become
apparent. â€œOnce you have a youth bulge, you have a vicious
cycle,â€? says Brian Nichiporuk, associate political scientist
with the Rand Corporation. â€œEven if you have a reduction in
fertility, there's still a whole generation to come that will be
The New Arab Consumer
A recent study finds dramatic changes in Arab Boomers' lifestyles and habits.
In all the talk of change, consumer habits may be the most visible indicator of an Arab society in transformation. A qualitative study of consumers in the Arabian Gulf, released this spring by Greenwich, Conn.-based NFO WorldGroup, suggests that dramatically changing attitudes are creating market segmentation. The study, â€œArab As Consumer,â€? reveals a rise in individualism and the growth of nuclear families in a region that has traditionally been communally minded.
NFO polled more than 400 Arab consumers between the ages of 16 and 45 in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, using 44 focus groups. The survey, conducted throughout 2001, followed up on a similar NFO study in 1987 that found no market segmentation in the region. Back then, Arab consumers were found to be almost completely collective-minded and tended to stick with tried-and-true brands.
Fourteen years later, NFO's researchers found, sharp divisions have separated consumers into four different groups, each with a differing mind-set. About 25 percent of those surveyed are similar to the traditional, conservative consumer identified in 1987. These people tend to be older and more likely to subordinate their own needs to those of their family and the society at large. They are apt to stay with what is familiar, and they frown on youth who imitate Western styles and values, says Steve Hamilton-Clark, managing director of the Middle East & Africa regions at NFO. Another 25 percent of those surveyed are more moderate, wanting to preserve traditional values while remaining open to what the West has to offer. This group tends to be younger, often living at home, with some disposable income and a greater say in buying decisions.
The most notable new category is the nearly 35 percent of respondents in nuclear families, struggling under new financial constraints. More liberal and individualistic, most are married couples, often slightly older than 25 and living away from their parents in rented apartments. As a result, says Hamilton-Clark, wives who can bring in a second income are valued. And as women make larger financial contributions to the family, they are demanding a greater say in important family decisions.
The final category of Arab consumers, NFO found, are the so-called rebels â€” about 15 percent of those surveyed. They are in their late teens and early 20s, who often come from wealthier families and tend to imitate Western culture and styles. Among them are young men focused on short-term rather than long-term goals â€” NFO found many had lost significant sums in the stock market crash of 2000. They are often attracted to get-rich-quick schemes and frustrated with life around them.
NFO estimates that nuclear families now account for more than
half of all families in the Gulf. And along with that growth, there
have been changes in brand preferences. â€œThe financial
pressures are absolutely huge, and people are more prepared to
experiment with new brands and cheaper brands,â€? says
Hamilton-Clark. Yet the most surprising aspect of the study, he
adds, is the pace of these changes, which he says began about five
years ago. Though similar change has occurred in the rest of the
world before, â€œwhat's different here is that it's happening
so quickly,â€? says Hamilton-Clark.