Paris is But a Symptom

The pattern of young people from the Middle East and North Africa getting into trouble -- as we used to say in the 1960s -- has evolved in recent decades from isolated and episodic incidents into a veritable global phenomenon.

The "trouble" these days, however, is not local gangsterism or self-inflicted problems with drugs or crime. The structural problems of young Arabs, North Africans and Asians -- economic, social and political -- have emigrated with them to other parts of the world. Many in our region and abroad have warned for three decades now of the dangers of ignoring the obvious stresses and disequilibria that plague so many young people in the Arab-Asian region. The cost of continued inaction and irresponsibility is not only higher now, it is also spreading around the world.

The news Tuesday was typical: young men of North African origin burn cars and clash with police throughout France for nearly two weeks straight. Smaller incidents of random violence plague German cities. Young Middle Eastern immigrants are arrested in Australia before setting off a potentially catastrophic series of terror bombings. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, young men continue to feed the recruiting lines of suicide bombers, resistance fighters, social-economic and political militants, freelance terrorists and legitimate, peaceful Islamist activists, all sharing a common attribute across the continents. They are dissatisfied with their current status and prospects in society and they will no longer stew in silence. They have moved beyond passive acceptance of their fate to the point of engaging in dynamic, violent actions that they see as assertive, redemptive or simply an appropriate expression of their anger, humiliation, marginalization and, above all, fear.

The causes of the violent, often nihilistic, acts of young Middle Eastern men around the world are neither unknown nor beyond the realm of corrective policies. There are no puzzles here. The core problem is mass degradation and alienation that manifest themselves in two milieus simultaneously: in urban belts of educated, usually unemployed, young men throughout Arab-Asian towns and cities; and in the parallel urban zones of mass disenfranchisement and marginalization that have become more common and visible in Western Europe, North America and Australia.

This is a cruelly recurring problem of inadequate integration and citizenship rights that plagues a young man in his own country, and again when he and his family immigrate to Western lands. Arab experts and colleagues abroad have repeatedly documented the multifaceted malaise of Arab youth: poor education, abuse of power, limited and unequal economic opportunities, lack of personal freedoms, cultural alienation, substandard housing, poverty, quality of life disparities, hyper-urbanization, the stresses of internal or international migration, low global competitiveness, weakening family and community networks, changing gender roles, the impact of global media, and increasing environmental pressures, to mention only the most obvious.

These problems that push young Arabs to violence are firmly anchored in the overarching weaknesses and distortions of their home societies, where power is wielded without sufficient accountability, education is provided without enough opportunity, and people often are not allowed by law even to express their basic social, religious, ethnic and political identities. The consequent tensions that build up are briefly alleviated or postponed through consumerism and materialism, enjoying Baywatch and Batman on television, or repeatedly denouncing America, Israel, British colonialism, and all the Arab leaders in passionate oratory.

This diversionary interlude lasts for, oh, about five-to-seven years in warm climates, and seven-to-ten years in cooler ones. Then, one day, the human spirit snaps. Baywatch, Batman, subsidized falafel sandwiches, and cell phones with cameras and music players no longer compensate for the existential fears that haunt many of our youth.

Our collective problem in the north and south alike is that we are talking about nearly a hundred million men and women who fall into this category of disenchanted adolescents and under-30 youth whose fundamental humanity has been pushed beyond the limits of its genetic and emotional programming. The sheer numbers are both telling and numbing: The population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has increased from some 60 million in the 1930s, to 112 million in the 1950s, to over 415 million today -- an astounding seven-fold increase in just three generations. The population will not stabilize until it doubles again to over 800 million by around 2050.

International Labor Organization (ILO) data shows that high population growth rates in the past decade have been coupled with a high labor force growth rate of 3.3 percent a year. Labor markets have done a poor job in trying to absorb the 3.6 million people every year who enter the job market; they will do no better from now until 2015, during which the labor force is expected to grow by 2.6 percent annually, meaning that some four million new workers will seek jobs every year. Only one in every third young person is working, in a region that suffers the highest youth unemployment rates in the world--around 30 percent.

One reason for this, the ILO notes, is that the education system produces unemployable youth. Graduate unemployment reaches up to 50 percent and more in Jordan and Yemen, and 27 percent in Morocco. This challenge of a large number of educated, unemployed young men and women will persist for decades ahead, because of the peculiarly young age of the Arab population. Those aged 20-24 years have increased from 10 million in 1950 to 36 million today, and will reach at least 56 million by 2050, because the under-15 population in the MENA region comprises 36 percent of the total population (compared to just 16 percent in Europe).

The really shocking thing is not staggering data, or the shocking political and human implications--but that none of this is new or surprising. These trends have been documented and pointed out for at least a generation. I remember when such statistics and projections were first broached in the region in the late-1970s, eliciting raised eyebrows, but not much else.

Burning cars in Paris and interrupted terror bombings in Sydney may achieve that which a generation of indigenous, patient scholarship, analysis and activism in the Middle East and North Africa have not elicited: serious political and economic reforms that assert the basic rights of Arab citizens to live in societies defined by decency and equality, and the indelible humanity of Arab youth who have been deformed beyond recognition by the inequities of their own tortured political cultures.


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