Young People in the Arab World

A Blank Space on the Academic Map

A new anthology outlining the current status of research into young people in the Arab world concludes that neither western nor Arab scholars have comprehensive and meaningful research material to work with. Julia Gerlach reports

The image of young Arabs with which western television viewers are most familiar is that of angry protesters burning either effigies of the Pope or flags of western states.

Alternatively, young Arabs are perceived by the western public as kidnappers, terrorists, suitcase bombers, or even victims of dictatorships who have neither perspectives, jobs, nor hope. In short, the combination of "young" and "Arab" sounds like trouble.

In reality, even though 70 per cent of the people living between Casablanca and Fujaira are under 35, we know very little about how these young people live.

The first thing that strikes readers of Changing Values among Youth - Examples from the Arab World and Germany, an anthology edited by Sonja Hegasy and Elke Kaschl, is that young Arabs are to a great extent a blank space on the academic map.

This is true not only of social sciences and oriental studies in the West: the anthology bridges the gap between Western academics and their colleagues in the Arab world, who do not have significantly better data at their disposal.

A completely different academic ball game

The book is the outcome of a conference that took place in Cairo in the summer of 2005 and was organised by the book’s editors. At this conference, scholars - mainly from the Arab world, but also from Europe and the USA - pooled their knowledge of young people in the Arab world.

In oriental studies in the West - which tend to follow particular trends, at least when dealing with modern subjects - research into young people is currently very popular. Despite this increased attention, researchers are still light years from the kind of knowledge provided by the Shell Studies on young people, which are published regularly in Germany.

This becomes clear to readers of this anthology because the nine papers dealing with the Arab world are contrasted with a tenth essay, written by Richard Münchmeier, summarising the findings and research design of the 13th Shell Study on young people - a completely different academic ball game.

Research into young Arabs is still in its infancy

With every new article in the anthology, the reasons why research into young people in the Arab world is still in its infancy become clearer. The essays concentrate on the methodology and research design of the various studies. One almost has to read between the lines to discover the research findings, which vary greatly in terms of the level of insight they provide.

Anja Wollenberg ran an Internet radio project for young Iraqis living in Berlin for several months in 2004. The project provides interesting insights into the lives of normal young Iraqis.

Admittedly, the findings are neither scientifically founded nor empirical: the interviewees were not selected on a representative basis or interviewed systematically, and the author herself doubts whether the young people answered entirely truthfully - after all, they were talking live on air.

Nevertheless, the study provides rare and valuable data. Better data is not available because the dramatic situation in Iraq makes academic research almost impossible.

Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco

Hans Oswald, Bernard Sabella, Hilke Rebensdorf, Hans Peter Kuhn, and their team conducted a study into young people’s interest in politics. They too experienced problems. They compared two societies that are at a similar point in their history: Brandenburg and Palestine, both on the eve of the first democratic elections in their recent history.

However, whereas they interviewed 2,633 young people several times as part of a three-year study in Brandenburg, they were refused permission to carry out research at state schools in Palestine and had to drastically reduce their sample.

Farag Elkamel and his team, on the other hand, conducted group interviews with young people in Egypt. He describes the mistrust that young people and their parents have of representatives of the state.

Mokhtar El-Harra details the situation in Morocco. His article provides an interesting view of what is often thought to be the main difference between young people on both sides of the Mediterranean: individualism and family ties.

New impetus

Although the book cannot bridge the yawning gap in our knowledge about the way young Arabs live, it does explain why this gap exists. There are few new books that provide such a precise and diverse view of the reality of social sciences in the Arab world.

One particularly interesting aspect is that it sheds light on a process that is currently in flux. The anthology, which is published in English and Arabic, could well provide new impetus for the process it describes. Let us hope that it does.

Julia Gerlach

© 2007

Changing Values among Youth. Examples from the Arab World and Germany. Edited by Sonja Hegasy and Elke Kaschl. ZMO Studien 22, Klaus Schwarzer Verlag. Berlin 2007

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