The Power of Mobilizing and Consolidating Middle Eastern Youth Movements

By: Joshua Ward

March 20, 2015

Earlier this semester, I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Wheatley International Affairs Conference (WIAC) at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. The theme of this year’s conference was “The Middle East: Power, Politics & Prospects for Peace” and brought 60 college students from across the country together to discuss topics from “Gulf Security” to “Gender, Islam and Human Development” in small group discussions over the course of the week. 
The goal of these so-called roundtable discussions was to struggle closely with these complicated issues and produce a policy recommendation (intended for any involved actor) by the end of the week. I was in the “Youth, Demographics, and Social Change” roundtable group, and I spent the week deliberating with my peers about a sector of the Middle Eastern population that has proven to be essential to understanding the contemporary developments in the region.

In the WIAC keynote address, Dr. Marc Lynch of George Washington University synthesized the events of the Arab uprisings and subsequent occurrences and attempted to put the current situation in the context of a changing Middle East. His talk was strikingly relevant to my roundtable discussion topic, and he ended with a poignant remark about this demographic of young Middle Easterners. He described the ability that this group has shown to cut across political, ideological, national, and sectarian divisions in pursuit of social and civil change in their countries. These young people, Dr. Lynch said, are excellent at mobilizing in support of a cause and in pursuit of change, but they have yet to succeed in consolidating their mass movements and therefore haven’t been able to achieve the lasting change that they so desperately seek.

This thought stuck with me throughout the conference and was reinforced along the way by my roundtable discussion as we discussed the qualities that this demographic, like its counterparts across the globe, possess. We discussed the gap between the Middle Eastern youth and their parents’ generation, the tension between traditional values and a desire to modernize and globalize, the impact that social media has had in these changes, and the ambition and energy that has echoed across Middle East from these young people in the past five years.

What struck me most of all from this discussion was the universality of this experience. As the week progressed we came to realize that the traits that made this demographic so exceptional and promising for social change are shared by the youth demographic across the world.

I think that Dr. Lynch’s poignant comment about the youth’s strength in mobilization but weakness in consolidation is a predicament that will define our generation’s development and will offer be the source of our greatest challenges and our greatest accomplishments. Although my discussion group struggled with this dilemma, and ultimately (and unsurprisingly) failed to come up with a concise, effective proposal that would encourage the consolidation of social change in the region, our conversation left me feeling hopeful about the scale and scope of change that we are capable of.

As Dr. James Toronto of BYU commented near the end of the conference, “consolidation is a long-term process.” This consolidation will not occur overnight and there is no teleological explanation for the direction that it will take. I have no idea how or when these changes will be manifested and much less of a concept of what these changes will be, but this generation is capable of putting aside differences (be they religious, national, socioeconomic, linguistic, etc.) and raising its voice in unison for progress. This conference demonstrated to me just how universal the qualities of today’s youth are and, more significantly, how just how universal and revolutionary the changes that it fosters will be.  
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The Power of Mobilizing and Consolidating Middle Eastern Youth Movements