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Young Muslims
Young Muslims
According to the U.N., in 2005 more than 54 percent of Egypt’s population was younger than 24. The numbers are similar for almost every other Muslim country
Saturday, November 17,2007 05:12
by Steven Brooke Washington times

 According to the U.N., in 2005 more than 54 percent of Egypt"s population was younger than 24. The numbers are similar for almost every other Muslim country, including Iran. Many of the world"s most sophisticated strategic thinkers, including the venerable Samuel Huntington, have pointed to this "youth bulge" as a key indicator of the potential turmoil and disruption stemming from the Middle East in the coming years. Does demography equate to radicalism in the Middle East?

In "Children of Jihad," Jared Cohen counters that Middle Eastern demographic trends herald potentially positive changes in relations between the United States and the Muslim world. A significant factor, according to Mr. Cohen, is that youth in the region are connected — to each other and the outside world — as never before.

The boom in satellite television (Bedouin families in the middle of the desert with 1,000 channels at hand) is just the beginning. Ubiquitous mobile phones and the accompanying text-messaging, widespread Internet cafes, blogs and the newer voice-over-IP technologies of companies like Skype have made communications faster, cheaper and easier.

With these accessories at hand, the youth of the region are eager for opportunities to reach out and understand other cultures. Technology has equipped today"s young people to flourish in intercultural exchanges where their parents may have floundered. This, according to Mr. Cohen, "should make all of us very hopeful."

The basis for these observations is simple. Mr. Cohen just traveled to Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to see what would happen when he met as many young people as he could. What he found was surprising: Underground parties in Iran, complete with bathtub booze, souped-up cars and preening teenagers; Hezbollah members whose chilling rhetoric during the day is nowhere to be found in Beirut nightclubs; and Syrian sisters who proudly strut around in jeans and tight T-shirts, ignoring the scowls of their elders.

Underlying many of Mr. Cohen"s anecdotes and encounters is an ongoing sense of passive resistance by the youth of the Middle East against systems they feel make little accommodation for their dreams and desires.

But the narrative is not only parties and pretty girls. In Iran, Mr. Cohen"s plans are derailed until he can find a way to give his government minder the slip. In Syria he is invited to dinner by a not-so-subtle intelligence official who just wants to convey the message that he is being watched. In Lebanon, Mr. Cohen and a dodgy "bodyguard" have to outrun the Lebanese army to get into the now notorious Ain al Hilweh refugee camp to interview Palestinian militants.

And in an astonishing passage about his time in Iraq, Mr. Cohen describes how his carelessness almost got him killed. Yet despite mishaps and run-ins with unsavory characters, like a surly taxi driver with a bin Laden sticker on the dash, Mr. Cohen"s optimism permeates the book.

At points one can even be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Cohen"s optimism might be running away with him. The theory driving this book is essentially that the spread of easy and cheap communication will translate into greater openness, political liberalization and a desire for peace and coexistence.

Yet will technology prove more salient than other historically accurate determinants of behavior, such as ideology or even culture? While the emphasis on technological development may indeed be accurate (anecdotes from my own research in Egypt support aspects of Mr. Cohen"s thesis), the optimism must be set against the growing number of terrorist groups that use the same technology to foster their own goals of bloodshed and mayhem.

Violent protests in response to the Danish cartoons organized and spread quickly over text messaging. Sophisticated, professional Web sites offer glitzy videos of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq set to music more akin to all-night dance parties.

This is no accident. The producers of these macabre videos have recognized that the best way to lure a youth into their orbit might be through techno music and cutting-edge graphics rather than stale diatribes from an out-of-touch sheikh. The jihadists know their target audience, and to this point they have expended far more time and energy in attracting these youth than the United States has. If nothing else, Mr. Cohen"s work gives us insight into what this critical audience is really like.


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