This past Tuesday, Sept. 2, the Wooster Forum series, “Through Their Eyes: Youth Finding Hope in a World of Adversity,” began with a lecture given by Jared Cohen entitled “Children of Jihad: Terrorism, Democracy, and the Changing Demographics of the Middle East.”
Cohen, an alumnus of Stanford University and the University of Oxford, is the author of “Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East.” He has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Africa, and currently works for the United States State Department.
Cohen, who considers youth to be “the critical issue of our time,” devoted his presentation to the discussion of the vital role he believes youth plays in the Islamic world, and how young people, who, according to him compose approximately 60 percent of the population in the Middle East, will shape the future of that region.
Though Cohen acknowledged in his lecture that a common perception of the Middle East is one of a turbulent area plagued by violence and political unrest, he believes that the region’s youth offer a beacon of hope for its future.
Cohen began his study of Middle Eastern youth on a trip he took to Iran in 2004. Though Cohen originally intended the trip to be an opportunity for him to pursue his research on opposition groups in the country, his focus shifted after interference from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard prevented him from carrying out interviews he had planned to conduct with dissidents. So, instead of moving forward with his research project, he traveled throughout the country, talking to many members of its youth.
According to Cohen, it was during this time that he realized the main opposition force in Iran was not comprised of reformers or politicians, but rather the 67 percent of the population under the age of 30.
Despite the obvious majority the youth holds, however, Cohen believes they do not realize their own strength. For, when they rebel in seemingly little ways, many times intending only to have a good time, they are inadvertently resisting their government and its many rules and regulations.
It is both through these small acts of rebellion and through the technical savvy of many Middle Eastern youth that Cohen believes the young members of the population will come to shape the cultural and political direction their region will take in the years to come. Cohen does not, however, think that the West has truly come to understand the power that Middle Eastern youth wield. He believes that, many times, youth is dismissed as a “soft issue,” though he himself thinks that the mere numbers the youth hold is reason enough to take their influence in the Middle East very seriously.
In addition, he does not believe that many observers to the events taking place in the region comprehend the culture gap that exists between the older and younger generation; he claimed that the youth subscribe to a completely different way of thinking than their older counterparts.
Cohen said that the inability of outsiders to understand the Middle East is the same as their inability to understand the area’s youth. He warned, however, that groups like al-Qaeda are working to reach a greater understanding of Islamic youth, and in doing so are working to find more ways to appeal to them as recruiters for their respective organizations.
While traveling through the Middle East, Cohen found that he had more success connecting to its youth when he stopped pursuing discussions about politics and started to talk to them about everyday problems they faced as young people; for example, the lack of career opportunities and the shortage of school supplies in many classrooms.
According to Cohen, those he talked to were members of the youth before anything else; the issues they dealt with were many times on a more personal level than the broader struggles involving organizational affiliation.
As an outlet to express themselves and their thoughts and problems, Cohen said that many Middle Eastern youth are turning to technology. As the first digital generation in the region, Cohen believes the youth have the potential to break down the ideological divides that separate them from others their own age.
Satellite television is the most popular form of technology in the Middle East, and increasing numbers of people are tuning in to the thousands of channels it offers and, in doing so, are developing a form of connection that at times knows no political boundaries.
In terms of level of use, mobile phones take a close second to satellite television. Middle Eastern youth can access the internet through these phones, in addition to using devices like text messaging and Bluetooth to communicate with each other without the knowledge of their parents or governments.
Cohen greatly emphasized the opportunity this provides young people around the world, an opportunity he refers to as “dorm room diplomacy.” Due to this technological interconnectedness involving the Middle East, youth all over the globe have the chance to engage their counterparts from what is a many times misunderstood region and, by doing so, help break down the national, cultural, and religious divides that keep them separate.