The New Middle East; Emerging Political and Ideological Trends

The population of the Middle East is getting increasingly younger. In the Arab world sixty percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five. The population increase in the region today is double that of the world average.

Of particular concern for the regimes in the Middle East is their failure to provide work for young people. In countries like Algeria and Iraq forty-five percent of the youth are unemployed, while most countries have an unemployment rate of between twenty-five to forty-five percent. Simultaneously, the younger generation has higher education than the older; they have the ability and the competence, but are still the losers on the labor market.

This generates social tensions. An important aspect of the social development in the Middle East today is that the elders’ influence over the younger is weakened. The weakening of patriarchal structures can be experienced as positive, in that it contributes to increased personal freedom and autonomy. An implication of increased freedom in the field of marriage can, for instance, be that sectarian power is weakened in multi-ethnic societies as a result of the increased occurrence of intra-religious marriages. But the phenomenon also has political implications which can be dramatic. The weakening of patriarchal structures can lead kinship networks to change and take on new politicized shapes. For instance, it has been observed in some countries, like Palestine and Afghanistan, that that the weakening of local councils of elders has made certain clans, which have retained their internal solidarity, more uncontrollable, and these have become involved in kidnappings and political violence.

Bonds of loyalty towards political authorities are also weakened. This implies that particular hegemonic political truths can be crumbling, for example among third generation Palestinian refugees, which can have other priorities than earlier generations. And while it was peasant uprisings that by and large dominated political resistance in the Middle East during earlier centuries, today it is first and foremost urban youth uprisings which can become a threat to the regimes. Both in relation to the Palestinian intifada, student uprisings in Iran and to a large extent also Taliban as a phenomenon, the social frustrations of youth have contributed to provoking political resistance.

The shape and direction of social and political frustrations among potentially radicalized groups can therefore not be viewed isolated from the channels which are available for social and political participation. Thus, how civil society operates seems important in order to analyze political trends. Civil society’s ability to absorb emerging currents; the existence or lack of channels of participation; influences the character of political and social engagement. The character of civil society reflects the shape of the actors’ engagement; informal political groups desire for upheaval, reform or status quo. The civil society is therefore a key component in political development.

In order to explore political trends in the Middle East we will focus on two closely related questions:

  1. Which political-ideological trends are gaining ground among the youth?
  2. Which trends are observable in the civil society?

1. Which political-ideological trends are gaining ground among the youth?

In the research project Fault lines of Islamism we indicated that Islamism can be viewed as a cultural revolt to defend a cultural identity against what is perceived as a Western threat. Further, we indicated that Islam was also a moral tradition, which is revitalized based on a wish to subject rapid societal changes to control.

This is important in order to understand political and ideological trends among the youth. Islam as an ideological current cannot be viewed in isolation from young people’s sense of identity and belonging. More than a mere religious system of belief, Islam is also intertwined with peoples lives in a way which makes the separation between the religious and the secular less relevant in the Middle East. The French expert on Islam Olivier Roy launched the concept of post-Islamism to describe a tendency where political, religious movements depart from revolutionary ideas of an Islamic state towards a strategy of working for incremental, gradual reform. Simultaneously, more conservative, often apolitical, currents are emerging. Rather than bridge the divide between religious and secular, there are three trends connected to religious belonging which could be of particular interest to study in relation to their ability to influence young people: ikhwani-Islamism, salafi-Islamism and multi-culturalism.

Firstly, political Islamism is still dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun), which links the wish for an Islamization of society and politics with a strong commitment to modernization and development, leaning towards moderation and attachment to democratic principles. Secondly, the more conservative salafis constitute a growing current.  These are primarily focused on rejecting all that is viewed as a deviation from the original, true Islam, and appear as far more conservative than the Brotherhood. Thirdly, many are what we might call cultural Muslims, which to a lesser degree link political identity to religion, but who still have internalized Islamic cultural values and who seek a Muslim community. Which trends are getting a particular foothold among the youth, why, and which interaction is there between the different groups? Which implications does this have for positions towards democracy and political participation, Islam and intra-religious relations, and political violence?

  1. Which trends are observable in the civil society?

It is characteristic for political culture in the Middle East that there is a relative high degree of political participation despite authoritarianism of the regimes. This is to a large extent explained by the fact that political activity takes place in informal arenas, or in the intersection between formal and informal political arenas, as much as it does within formal political channels as. This implies that neighborhood networks, kinship networks, political associations and informal political councils, mediation councils and the like, exists parallel to, or as a complementary part of, state institutions. One example is the proliferation in the Middle East of mediation councils for family conflicts, where locally respected persons strive to defuse conflicts as an institutionalized form of conflict resolution.

At the same time, there is a plethora of NGOs, supported by international aid and funding from Muslim charities. Particular organizations appear as parallel state institutions, both in the form of semi-autonomous tribal groups and Islamist groups like Hizballah.

Types of autonomy, participation and trends in civil society are important to analyze both as an expression of political and ideological processes, in order to understand the state’s mechanisms for control, and to assess the legitimacy of the regimes. Which forms of civil society in the Middle East are consolidated, which are being weakened and with which political implications? Which role does Islam take in relation to political currents within the civil society?

Published Jan. 10, 2013 3:24 PM - Last modified Apr. 17, 2014 11:03 AM