The New Face of the Middle East

Posted on April 20, 2011


Youthful, rebellious, romantic young people in trendy sunglasses, and stylish jeans who share their experiences with university students overseas through Skype . Sounds like you or someone you know? Well, this is the new Middle East.

Asad Jafri, Director of Arts and Culture, Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)

“Young people will be the voice and the face of Islam and Muslims now,” says Asad Jafri, Director of Arts and Culture at Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Over a cup of green tea at a French Café in Chicago, Asad, Pakistani born young Muslim in his mid 20s explained to me that there is a religious minority that wants to dictate rules and laws, ways and means that are not necessarily reflective of the majority of the people.

The recent events in the Middle East and North Africa will change how Muslims see themselves. More importantly the world will now see a different image of young Muslims.

Before diving into what the younger generation in this part of the world really stands for, let’s take a moment and see why this massive wave of upheavals started.

Why Middle East Revolted

Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described the situation in the Middle East as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz, or “democracy of bread.” Bread – once used to ensure compliance has now become a symbol and source of boldness in the Middle East.

Others summarize the turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the wider region as “Facebook revolution”.

Hind Makki, Program Associate at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)

“What we saw in Egypt, Tunisia and now in Libya shows that the barrier of fear has been broken,” says Hind Makki, Program Associate at Interfaith Youth Core.   “I think it is a freedom revolution. A freedom to speak what you want to speak and to be able to criticize the government, the ruling classes and the media without repercussion.”

After speaking with Asad, Hind and others I think there are two interconnected factors behind the uprising in the Middle East:

“The young are educated but they cannot find jobs,” explains Hind. As we get on with our lunch at a restaurant in Greek town, Hind, who is a US-born Sudanese young lady explains that the majority of young people in Egypt, Tunisia and neighboring countries cannot get married as they can not afford it. They live with their parents and are constantly infantilized.

“All they want to do is to earn an honest living and not being treated poorly by their governments,” says Hind.

And when you deprive the young of their hopes and dreams and the potential to live a full life you get resentment.

Egyptian protester. Posted by ghazalairshad

In the case of Egypt and Tunisia the response was spirited. The courage of the young and old comes at a high price. It also raises a lot of questions like are there political institutions in place to consolidate democracy? Is the civil society strong enough to actively participate in the governance of the country?  All legitimate and relevant questions. However, the determination of these protesters is a good start.

But what their courage has done on a larger scale is to prove that we all strive for the same basics despite out religious, racial or any other components of our identity. An average young Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Jew want the same freedoms, opportunities and dignity.

Myths and Realities about Muslims in the Middle East

Democracy & the Arab World:  Like Oil & Water?

Myth: Asad thinks that there is a big misconception about the young people of the Middle East when it comes to political activism. “If you hear the word Muslim with any kind of political activity it becomes scary for people, especially for the media in the West,” explains Asad in a calm demeanor.

Hind seconds this opinion. “People think that young people in the Middle East and North Africa are angry, violent and radical extremists. And that the change that can occur would be through angry and radical ways.”

Reality: The protests of April 6 in Egypt proved just the contrary. Interestingly, Hind finds similarities between the Egyptian, Tunisian resolutions and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960 in the United States.

Slogans like “salmiya, salmiya” (peaceful, peaceful) and incorporation of some of the non-violent techniques Serbian civil youth movement Otpor used in October 2000 to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic further proved the dedication of the protesters to peaceful change.

Muslim & Arab Women

Myth: We often see images of women shown rather symbolically: veiled. Hardly do we see women portrayed as stakeholders, which they apparently are.

“Westerners often think that the Muslim and Arab women stay home and they are not doctors, teachers and journalists. That they don’t care about civil society,” says Hind who herself wears a beautiful headscarf and clearly understands the issue on the ground.

Reality: In fact the protest of Jan 25 in Egypt was mobilized by a woman called Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old young woman in hijab, who put up a YouTube video encouraging Egyptian women to come out and protest.

Another example is Tawakkol Karman, a 32-year-old Yemenis journalist, a wife and a mother, who is leading the protests in Yemen.

While these women are on and of camera leaders of the revolutions there are hundreds of others – Sunnis, Shias, Christians, women in hijab and without – who go out to volunteer as nurses, doctors and fight for their freedom and dignity.

Some may say that Asmaa and Tawakkol represent the Internet generation. Yes, they are young, technology savvy and their images do not represent the majority of the Muslim women.  While that might be true for the time being, the trend is clearly changing.

Time cover story

Arabs Are Not Relatabe

“A year ago Arabs were scary, while now there are Tweets saying, “Arabs are sexy,” says Hind with a

smile that communicates a genuine surprise.

“There was so much music coming out of it (revolution) both in the region and here is the U.S” says Asad who pays special attention to arts and culture.

Rush, a member of Cairo-based Rap outfit Arabian Knightz and AZ, a Libyan rapper, with his “A Laugh and a Smile” come to mind.

Check out Tahrir Hipsters project featuring faces of the revolutionary’s and let me know if these images look totally off to you.

Diverse & Complex 

“Through music and visual arts, documentaries you can really understand what’s happening with the Muslims and the region as opposed to sometimes biased western media,” says Asad.  He is flying out to Pakistan in three days to finalize the selection of artists in the region who will soon travel to the U.S. with concerts.

Chicago’s World Music festival will feature some of the artists Asad hopes to invite to the United States. Mark your calendars for June 6.