There is significant debate about what motivates some young people in the Middle East and North Africa to join a movement such as ISIS. The British Council's John Dubber considers the issues.
Since 2010, there have been huge changes across the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring was characterised by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, significant political reforms in places like Morocco and Jordan, and the growth of intractable civil conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
In the midst of this, we have seen the rapid emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also known as ISIS or ISIL. As well as its advances on the ground, ISIS has succeeded in identifying many socio-economically marginalised and vulnerable young people from across the region, attracting them to join the conflict. It is estimated that more than 25,000 people have travelled to join groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaida.
The fading promise of the Arab Spring
Immediately after the first uprisings, a wave of optimism swept the region. The Arab Youth Survey 2012, which measured the attitudes of 2,500 young people across 12 countries, showed that 72 per cent thought things had improved since the uprisings. It also found that the majority felt positive about their own and their countries’ futures.
The results of this year’s survey tell a very different story. In 2015, just 38 per cent of young people agree that the Middle East and North Africa is better off following the Arab Spring, compared to 72 per cent in 2012. As many as 39 per cent of young people agree with the statement that ‘democracy will never work in the region', while just 36 per cent think it will work and the remaining 25 per cent are unsure.
Unemployment and underemployment
The original uprisings had been fuelled in part by the frustration of unemployed young people, especially young graduates unable to gain stable jobs. Those jobs remain as elusive as ever. The region today has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, with the levels continuing to rise.
In February this year, International Alert published the results of a survey into the attitudes of young people in two neighbourhoods in Tunis. The research showed that employment is the number one priority for the vast majority of young people, but that unemployment rates are high and significantly affecting well-being. When asked what is important in life, almost 90 per cent of young people cited ‘work’ as an answer. However, of the sample, just 44 per cent were in full-time employment. When asked to name what unemployment meant to them, 29 per cent of the respondents described it as ‘psychological suffering’ and 18 per cent as ‘despair’.
Unemployment also affects young people’s ability to find housing and develop stable family relationships – things that create stability for individuals and society as a whole.
A growing distrust of politics
The International Alert study also found that trust in politics is extremely low among young people. This is despite Tunisia frequently being regarded as a success story of the region, with steps being taken to move towards stable democracy.
The research also found that young people's involvement in politics occurs primarily through social media. This corresponds with the findings of the Arab Youth Survey, which showed that a high proportion of young people in the region access their news online and from social media. This growth in online activity and a growing dissatisfaction with formal politics presents a dangerous opportunity for extremists to exploit.
Religion as a source of hope
With a bleak economic outlook and little trust in the political system to deal with their concerns, young people can view religious activism as a means of achieving positive change for their societies and communities. It can also provide a sense of belonging to those marginalised in society and can be especially powerful when the economy and political institutions are seen as having high levels of corruption.
The International Alert research found that 35 per cent of respondents cited Salafism (a religious movement of Sunni Islam that advocates strict adherence to shari'a law and to the social structures existing in the earliest days of Islam) as a defining feature of their neighbourhood. However, no-one rated it as such before the revolution.
Furthermore, some 81 per cent of the respondents in the survey claimed to know at least one young person from their neighbourhood who had gone to fight in Syria. Tunisia has been the source of the highest number of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.
A potent mix of marginalisation and disenfranchisement
A few days ago, senior leaders from a range of UK academic, cultural, educational, military and political organisations gathered at the British Council to consider the factors behind ISIS’s appeal to young people. They concluded that, while these factors cannot explain every recruit that joins ISIS or every person who sympathises with their cause, young people’s lack of hope for a bright future, secure jobs or a better life for their families, and their pessimism about democratic politics, make for a dangerous mix. The situation is further exacerbated by the potential appeal of religious ideology that is seen as uncorrupted compared to the political system or the economy. For young people in these circumstances, joining ISIS can be a means of escape.
Much has been written about the sophisticated way ISIS has used social media. However, the social, economic and political context in the region suggests that social media activity is more likely to be the catalyst than the cause of ISIS recruitment.
The leaders who gathered at the British Council concluded that, while there are no easy solutions to these challenges, there are some things that the UK and others could do to offer greater support to governments and people in the region.
First, more could be done to give young people a voice in their societies and help them find jobs and education opportunities. Tackling youth unemployment is particularly important. The causes are many and complex, but more and higher-quality education could help. Closely related is educational reform, so that the skills of graduates and college leavers more closely match the demands of the labour market. Lifelong learning opportunities are also a priority to help ensure people have opportunities to develop their abilities in areas linked to economic growth. The UK has significant expertise in these areas and could make a vital contribution.
Another important issue is the teaching of critical thinking skills, which can help develop a questioning mind-set and undermine the appeal of extremism. Arts and cultural projects have also proved powerful in conflict and post-conflict environments globally, helping people tackle challenging issues and imagine different futures for themselves, their communities and their nations. They could have a bigger role to play in the Middle East and North Africa.
Along with education, young people could be given more opportunities to participate in political debate and influence politicians and democratic institutions. They also need positive role models. More could perhaps be done to develop connections and networks with likely future leaders in the region to support their development and long-term connections with the UK.
The UK and others have a responsibility to ensure a more informed debate about positive developments in the region, and to highlight stories about progress. Importantly, though, the UK and others need to show humility. We must not tell people in the region how to organise their societies, especially given the legacy of military intervention. Instead, we should offer support to young people, organisations and governments and work in ways that benefit everyone. Our aim should be cohesive and stable societies, and economic prosperity for all.
The British Council has a number of programmes in the Middle East and North Africa that seek to bring positive change to the lives of young people by developing their skills and supporting the reform of education systems.
We are currently in discussions with the UK government and our partners in the region about ways in which we could further develop and extend our work at this crucial time.