Youth — what is it? The notion tends to be taken for granted, as a natural stage in human development. But, in fact, “youth” is a socially and culturally determined category, a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood that, in its contemporary form, is a product of modernity. In the pre-modern era, adolescents were usually regarded as troublemakers, and so it was customary to marry them off soon after the onset of puberty, giving them adult responsibilities in order to stave off any social threat and ensure uninterrupted agrarian and pastoral production. The forces of modernity, and in particular the forms of education that capitalist production requires, have greatly extended the period of youth and delayed the age of marriage. Youth today is typically defined as a phase in life between the ages of 15 and 24, but in practice one’s youth knows very fuzzy bounds. Young men in the Middle East may belong to this social category well into their thirties, due to the economic difficulties that many of them face in getting married.

Delayed marriage is one of several socio-economic realities — another being high unemployment — that has had Western observers and regional governments worried about a youth “problem” in the Middle East for decades. Samuel Huntington, for instance, has argued famously that the large number of unemployed males between 15 and 30 constitute “a natural source of instability and violence.” And poor countries are not the only ones thought to have a problem: “Too often Muslims are against physical labor, so they bring in Koreans and Pakistanis while their young people remain unemployed,” mused ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in one of his “snowflake” memoranda. “An unemployed population is easy to recruit to radicalism.” [1] Such concerns have been felt as urgent because twentieth-century public health advances have created a “youth bulge” in the region’s demographic profile: In most countries of the region, at least 20 percent of the population is between 15 and 24 (though, as the adjacent chart shows, such “bulges” are not unusual in other populous, non-Western countries). The flip side of this coin for Westerners is to see the rising generations, “globalized” by technology and the allure of liberal capitalism, as the agents of inexorable “change” in countries perceived as mired in stagnation or worse.

Problem Children

It has frequently been claimed that the so-called youth problem of the Middle East is essentially a demographic one: There are simply too many of them. Typically cited as evidence are the high percentages of young people, that in Iran in 2005, for instance, 25 percent of the population was between 14 and 25. [2] Others argue, however, that the problem is not so much demographics as the expectations generated by the forces of modernization. The Middle East has witnessed a massive and rapid increase in its educated young population, and in particular, a dramatic growth in the number of educated females. Large numbers are entering the labor market and are unable to find jobs commensurate with their education. High rates of unemployment and under-employment particularly afflict those with higher levels of education, and such problems are exacerbated in countries undergoing “structural adjustment,” where employment opportunities are declining in state-owned firms and the bureaucracy. In addition, young people who hope to become financially and socially independent, which means finding suitable employment, leaving home and setting up a household as part of a married couple, frequently face critical shortages of housing. (Somewhat different problems affect less privileged classes in both urban and rural areas, where many young people enter the work force at an early age.) And when marriage is, for most, the only sanctioned outlet for sexual activity, the issue of what young people do in their spare time becomes particularly salient for elites.

Youth were not always perceived as a crisis in the making. During the optimistic years that succeeded independence (as in Egypt after 1952) or revolution (as in Iran after 1979), youth symbolized the future of the modern nation that the state hoped to build. Whereas the older, under-educated generation represented backwardness, the youth were imagined to be the recipients of a modern progressive education and the imbibers of state-propagated ideology. In Iran, youth were regarded as the index of the success of the state in creating a true Islamic Republic, until the success of the state’s pro-natalist policies prompted a rethinking. [3] In Turkey during the Kemalist era, educated youth were viewed as the main instrument of the state’s national civilizational project.

The trajectory of the image of youth in Turkey may be taken as an exemplary case. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when violent conflict erupted on university campuses between leftist and rightist students, youth came to be reimagined in public discourse as a “threat” to the national interest. [4] This theme, of “dangerous” youth, has become increasingly common in public discourse in Middle Eastern countries. But in contrast to how the theme is understood in the West, where youth is “dangerous” because the young are self-motivated delinquents, in the Middle East it is more frequent for young people to be seen as vulnerable innocents. The forces which are said to threaten youth are various and changeable, depending on the context, and depending on the political affiliation of the commentator.

Westernization is regarded across the board as one of the greatest sources of danger to susceptible youth. Western culture and its immoral values (related forces include Zionism and globalization) threaten youth with the evils of HIV/AIDS, premarital sex, drugs, suicide, Satanism and so on. A related threat is the media, held as responsible for relaying corrupting influences to young people, and therefore film, music, radio and satellite TV broadcasts, and the Internet are all foci of great concern. In Egypt such dangers are usually summed up as the “cultural invasion” (ghazw thaqafi), which foists bad morals and “vulgar” culture — the macarena, Madonna and Michael Jackson — upon youth, leaving them without viable national role models, only alien and decadent ones. [5]

The Daddy State

Symptomatic of such perceptions about the dangerous potentiality of youth and their need for supervision, instruction and protection is the fact that states explicitly view themselves as surrogate parents (and especially “fathers”) for the country’s youth. One facet of this assumed parental role has been the establishment of Ministries of Youth and Sports, many set up during the 1990s, for instance, the Palestinian Authority’s in 1994 and Egypt’s in 1998. (In Tunisia, the parallel body is known as the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Physical Education.) The purpose of such ministries is to develop a national youth policy and youth programs.

It is telling, of course, that government policy and discourse links youth and sports so intimately. Sports are regarded as a way of channeling youthful energies into activities that are wholesome and, not coincidentally, serve as means of bringing glory to the nation. Saudi Arabia established the General Presidency of Youth Welfare in 1974, in part with the aim of fostering boys’ interest in sports, and by 1994 it reportedly had established strong programs in 18,000 schools throughout the kingdom. [6] The importance that states attach to sports as a youth policy can be gauged by the fact that such ministerial posts are not necessarily honorary sinecures for politically unimportant figures. Algeria’s current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, got his start in government as minister of youth and sports. ‘Ali al-Din Hilal Disouqi, who recently gave up his post as Egypt’s minister of youth and sports, has been touted as one of the main mentors of Gamal Mubarak, who to all appearances is being groomed to succeed his father, Husni, as president. [7] And then there is Uday Hussein, son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and his notorious tenure as head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and national soccer team (as well as the youth television network Shabab).

States also make great efforts to guide youth through the ideological work of institutions devoted to education and health, conscription into the military, and the establishment of state-directed youth and student unions. The concern of the state, then, is not simply protection of its youth from danger, but national and social reproduction, the project of ensuring that young people do not deviate from the transcendent goal of maintaining the integrity of the nation. [8]

Market Niche

Dick Hebdige has observed that the two key themes in modern representations of Western youth are “youth as trouble” and “youth as fun.” [9] The images of “youth as fun” emerged amidst post-World War II affluence and the development of the category of the “teenager.” Such images depend on the ability of youth to participate as independent agents in consumer culture and on the growth of market niches targeted at youth. There is evidence to suggest that youth are a growing target for marketers and advertisers, particularly in the more affluent Gulf countries. The Middle East contains some of the globe’s fastest-growing ad markets and audiences; Dubai is the advertising hub and Saudi Arabia contains the largest audience, while Lebanon supplies the local creative talent. [10] The State Department has even dipped into these waters, launching a slick lifestyle magazine in 2003 called Hi, aimed at the same affluent Arab youth targeted by Dubai’s advertising agencies—but apparently failing to gain enough readers, and ad revenue, to sustain itself. [11] The glossy was “suspended” in 2005.

There is abundant evidence to suggest that increasing numbers of Middle Eastern youth are participating, to various degrees and in various ways, in a globalized capitalist youth culture. Although this is good for business, the processes of incorporation of youth as consumers are full of contradictions and pitfalls. In Turkey, for instance, today’s youth are regarded as shallow, individualistic, driven by crass desires for consumption, apolitical and insufficiently nationalist. It is common in Turkish public discourse for young people to be found wanting in comparison to what are regarded as the more “heroic” previous generations, especially those of the nationalist (Kemalist) or revolutionary (“Sixties”) eras. [12] On the other hand, even supposedly apolitical efforts to promote youth as consumers can spin out of control, as when Saudi Arabia suspended publication of the youth-targeted daily newspaper Shams, which was launched in 2005 and was circulated widely in Gulf states, after it reprinted some of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad originally appearing in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, as part of an editorial critical of the paper’s action.

One of the most significant signs of the mobilization of images of youth as fun and youth consumption is the ubiquity of the “clips” (music videos) on Arab satellite TV (and the Internet). As Walter Armbrust shows, hostility to these video clips on the part of pundits and commentators is as omnipresent as the clips themselves. According to Armbrust, typical arguments are that video clips are a form of Western cultural hegemony that “‘make Arab youth want to become what they can never be’” (Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouthi) and that undermine patriarchal society through the marketing of sex, which “‘makes marriage increasingly difficult as a practical course of action’” (Egyptian professor ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Massiri). [13]

Mass consumption, therefore, even when it involves local products, can also be regarded as posing dangers to youth or producing “youth as trouble.” One peril is said to be that Arab youth will be tantalized by the offerings of global culture, yet unable to afford the commodities of their dreams or get access to public spaces in which to enjoy the pleasures associated with such products.

Limits of Disaffection

The discourses of the state, the mass media, pundits and professional commentators tend, on the whole, to position Middle Eastern youth as lacking in agency, needing protection and requiring the tutelage of state institutions, experts and the nationalist intelligentsia. While such discourses are correct in their understanding that youth are in a position of dependency on their elders and the institutions they control, what about youths’ own motivations and desires?

One of the countries whose youth have received the most attention is Iran. Roxanne Varzi, in her important ethnography on Iranian youth, finds widespread disaffection for the ideology of the Islamic Republic among the middle-class youth of northern Tehran. While showing how such youth deploy various features of Western popular culture in expressing their dissent, Varzi is careful to avoid the trap of many Western observers who see such Iranian youth as so intensely disaffected that they are all secular and Westernized. Varzi demonstrates, on the contrary, that middle-class youth have been molded by the Iranian state project of religiosity. Religion is very much a part of their lives, and their expressions of resistance, rather than being external to them. For instance, one of the modes of disaffection is an embrace of what Varzi labels “Sufi cool” by long-haired, bohemian Iranian youth. The state has responded by producing its own brand of mystical pop music in an effort to appropriate and compete with Islamic practices outside its control. [14] In addition, young people in the northern suburbs typically use Shi‘i religious rituals like ‘Ashura as occasions to mingle freely and publicly with the opposite sex, turning such events into street parties. Similar things occur at mulids (saints’ days) in Cairo, in this case, among youth of working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds, as depicted in Yousry Nasrallah’s 1995 documentary, On Boys, Girls and the Veil.

Marc Schade-Poulsen’s important ethnographic work in Oran, Algeria in the early 1990s likewise avoids the errors made by many Western observers of rai music, who tend to view it, like rock ‘n’ roll, as a youth-based cultural movement striking blows against the puritanical and conservative practices supported by an authoritarian state and backward, intolerant religious mandarins. Schade-Poulsen demonstrates that there is no inherent contradiction between listening to rai music and being a believing Muslim, despite the violent antagonism toward rai artists on the part of some militant Islamists. And while rai music is associated with youth in Oran, it is by no means exclusively consumed by them, but, in different ways, by all generations, and especially, and collectively, at weddings. Moreover, rai music is not “authored” by young musicians but by older producers and established studio musicians, and is mostly performed in nightclubs frequented by well-off adults, rather than young people who have little disposable cash. For young men in Oran, rai is not exactly “rebel music” à la punk or reggae; rather, its lyrics represent a means by which they negotiate the difficulties they face in meeting and dealing with young women, at a time when women, as a result of modern education and employment, wield more social power than in the past. [15]

Armbrust’s examination of the discourses surrounding video clips likewise demonstrates the importance of avoiding simplistic stereotypes when it comes to youth culture and consumption. While many local observers condemn the clips as corrupting, and Western observers often view them as sticking it to the man (through depictions of liberated sexuality), Armbrust shows that the reality is much more complicated. The video flow includes not only the celebrated (and maligned) gyrations of sexpots Haifa Wehbe and Elissa, but also the “family values” clips of ‘Ali Gawhar and clips of the massively popular Sami Yusuf, which use “pop” conventions to articulate messages of Islamic piety and devotion.

All this suggests the need for careful study of the daily lives of young people, but also a caution against focusing on the spectacular or relying overly upon Western models. A spate of articles and books, for instance, has suggested that Iran’s young people are overwhelmingly secular and thirsty for Western commodities and lifestyles. These youth are believed to represent the best hope that Iran will abandon its fundamentalist ways and rejoin the civilized community of nations. An analytical focus on Iranian rappers and young women wearing makeup and allowing their headscarves to slip to reveal frosted hair obscures a more complicated reality. Young volunteers man the paramilitary Basij, which is on the front lines of the Islamic Republic’s struggle against “immoral” behavior, particularly on the part of privileged youth. This is one indicator of the regime’s continued support among many lower and working-class youth. Moreover, Iranian university students may be disenchanted but they are essentially apolitical. They are mostly concerned with quotidian goals such as landing a job or getting admitted to graduate school. In fact, 150,000 Iranian professionals leave the country each year, giving Iran one of the highest rates of “brain drain” in the Middle East. [16]

Given the severe limitations on youth incomes, the paucity of public spaces for youth leisure and the nervousness on the part of authoritarian states about congregations of young people, “oppositional” youth movements are unlikely to take the same forms as youth subcultures in the West. Other Western frames of analysis of youth, such as the notion of the “generation gap,” can likewise be misleading. As Varzi shows, for instance, secular youth in upscale precincts of Tehran rely on the discretion and permission of their parents when they organize private parties in their homes that sometimes involve mixed-gender socializing, live music and consumption of alcohol. [17] Claims that mass consumption and access to the trappings of globalized youth culture will necessarily make young people materialistic, individualistic, apolitical and lacking in social consciousness are equally dubious. Palestinian youth who have embraced rap music, for instance, have typically deployed this art form to articulate fiercely nationalistic political concerns. And Turkish youth, widely criticized for their selfish consumerism, turned out to be at the forefront of relief efforts in the wake of the Marmara earthquake of 1999. [18]

Liberators in Trouble

The theme of “youth as trouble” emerges most clearly — and the fears of Western observers and Middle Eastern states converge — with regard to militant Islamism, the supreme ill from which young people must be protected (or else). In the minds of Westerners prone to “clash of civilizations” thinking, the supposed susceptibility of Middle Eastern youth to radical Islam is the factor that most calls into question the belief that youth will set the region free. If not even the new generation can be trusted to embrace “moderation” — acquiescence in the US-sponsored liberal capitalist order — then there is no hope of coexistence. In the words of Thomas Friedman, “Young Israelis dream of being inventors, and their role models are the Israeli innovators who made it to the Nasdaq. Hizballah youth dream of being martyrs, and their role models are Islamic militants who made it to the Next World.” [19] In the Middle East, the young may not be seen as irredeemable, but they are no less at risk: The success of Muslim “extremists” is often attributed to their ability to prey on youth, in particular, underprivileged young men who are sexually frustrated due to their inability to afford the costs of marriage. A paradigmatic example of such representation in Egypt is the 1994 hit film The Terrorist (al-Irhabi), in which the young terrorist (played by the not so young ‘Adil Imam) is recruited when the Islamist group promises him a wife in return for fulfilling an assassination mission.

More broadly, there is a tension in dominant discourses about youth between seeing them as victims or perpetrators of violence. Consider the great outrage and distress in the West over Palestinians’ “use” of children in the first year of the second intifada, culminating in Palestinian spokespeople being forced to argue that Palestinian mothers actually do love their children and do not send them out to force the Israeli army to shoot them. On the one hand, the denial of agency to the youngest stone throwers allowed Westerners (and Israelis) to locate the cause of the children’s victimhood in a flaw of Palestinian culture, rather than the occupation. On the other hand, the older “stone-throwing youths” of a thousand wire photos — having acquired agency by dint of their age — were regarded as purveyors of violence, not victims. This episode also serves as a reminder that, for Middle Eastern states worried about their youth problem, the project of national reproduction has always been managed within an international arena of (Euro-American) expectation that judges the modernity of other countries by how those deemed vulnerable are treated. The category of the vulnerable in the Middle East includes women and ethnic minorities (Jews, Berbers, Kurds), but also the young. When Middle Eastern states are judged incompetent in their care for youth, the response of the West may be to assert surrogate parental rights of its own, intervening directly to save the madrasa-bound boys and unschooled girls of Afghanistan, or encouraging the students of Iranian universities to rebel against their elders.

In the post-September 11 era, indeed, the sheer numbers of Middle Eastern youth have been cited as the Achilles’ heel of the existing non-democratic order in the region. It has become a media truism, for instance, that 60 percent of Iran’s population of 70 million is less than 30 years of age, including a substantial cohort born well after the 1979 revolution. This fact is frequently adduced to imply that hardline clerical rule has no future. [20] In a sign that such hopes have not faded in Foggy Bottom, the State Department has lately employed one Jared Cohen, 26, author of Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East, to advise its policy planning staff on how to “divert the world’s impressionable youth away from ‘illicit actors.’” Cohen told a New Yorker profiler: “I always say that the largest party in every country — the largest opposition group in every country — is the youth party.” [21] Yet following the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which consolidated all the branches of the Iranian government under conservative control, Iranian youth have largely been relegated to the role of victim in Western discourse. “Iran’s youth are as talented as young Indians and Chinese, but they have no chance to show it,” the ever quotable Friedman has lamented. “Iran has been reduced to selling its natural resources to India and China — so Chinese and Indian youth can invent the future, while Iran’s young people are trapped in the past.” [22] It is a short distance from this avuncular solicitude to the proposition that Iranian youth could reclaim their agency — with a helpful nudge from outside.

Youth in the Middle East are burdened with authoritarian states, corruption and nepotism that circumscribe their life chances, as well as structural socio-economic crisis stemming from the failures of state-led development and the systemic inequalities of global capitalism. Not the least of their burdens, however, are the expectations and imprecations generated by the “youth” of the elite imagination. In the manner of youth everywhere, young Middle Easterners can be expected to heed the paternalism of their governments and the projections of outsiders unevenly at best, as they strive to fulfill their own aspirations, whether they are emancipatory, mundane or somewhere in between.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Lori Allen, Arang Keshavarzian and Paul Silverstein for their helpful and timely suggestions and comments.


[1] Washington Post, November 1, 2007.
[2] Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Mary Mederios Kent, “Challenges and Opportunities: The Population of the Middle East and North Africa,” Population Bulletin 62/2 (June 2007), p. 15. Future generations can expect to encounter different sorts of problems, given that the birth rate in many Middle Eastern countries has declined significantly, in some cases close to European levels.
[3] Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 11.
[4] Leyla Neyzi, “Object or Subject? The Paradox of ‘Youth’ in Turkey,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 33/3 (August 2001), p. 420.
[5] A mild version of this argument appears in Galal Amin, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? (Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1998). [Arabic] [6] Brian Clark, “A Cupful of Pride,” Saudi Aramco World (September/October 1994).
[7] New York Times, October 3, 2002.
[8] On this process in Algeria, see Kamel Rarrbo, L’Algérie et sa jeunesse: Marginalisations sociales et désarroi culturel (Paris: Harmattan, 1995).
[9] Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light (London: Routledge, 1998).
[10] Tim Burrowes, “Middle Eastern Promise,” Campaign, May 26, 2006.
[11] Elliott Colla and Chris Toensing, “Never Too Soon to Say Goodbye to Hi,” Middle East Report Online (May 2003).
[12] Neyzi, p. 424.
[13] See Walter Armbrust, “What Would Sayyid Qutb Say? Some Reflections on Video Clips,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 14 (Spring 2005).
[14] Varzi, pp. 21, 133, 136.
[15] Marc Schade-Poulsen, Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Rai (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1999).
[16] Kaveh Basmenji, Tehran Blues: How Iranian Youth Rebelled Against Iran’s Founding Fathers (London: Saqi Books, 2005), p. 316.
[17] Varzi, p. 166.
[18] Neyzi, p. 426.
[19] Thomas Friedman, “Buffett and Hizballah’s Surprise War,” New York Times, August 9, 2006.
[20] See, for example, Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2003.
[21] Jesse Lichtenstein, “Condi’s Party Starter,” New Yorker, November 5, 2007.
[22] Thomas Friedman, “A Shah with a Turban,” New York Times, December 23, 2005.

How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "Imagined Youths," Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).

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