Monday 29 May 2023 \


Young Muslims, media and political change

By Tahir Abbas

Last week the Turkish-Arab Media Forum gathered at the Conrad Hotel in İstanbul to discuss the highly topical issue of the role of media in politics, with a particular focus on the recent “Arab Spring” and its implications for youth mobilization in the region and perhaps even beyond.

Having had an opportunity to work with the Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation, an international institution affiliated to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and in anticipation of a highly significant annual report soon to be published, “State of Muslim Youth 2011,” and as a panelist on the “Arab Spring, Media and Youth” platform, I offer my thoughts and perspective on a most sociopolitical concern in the current period.

We are indeed living in interesting times. Parts of the Middle East are on fire, and the eurozone is close to the brink of collapse — or at least these are the messages we keep hearing in “informed” media news circles. But what do we really understand of these issues in a local and global context, and how might we prepare for the consequences of dramatic changes seemingly unfolding before our very eyes?

There are over 300 million young people (15-24) in OIC countries. Half of all Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and South Asia are under the age of 25. They face a number of significant challenges, including development, education, gender, equality, intercultural and interfaith relations, leadership, law and human rights, dialogue and coexistence, the general lack of cohesion and the projection of persistent conflict in the media, home and abroad. There is very much a need to overturn these ongoing concerns so as to ensure a stable and cohesive regional polity as well as a confident, articulate and engaged youth.

This goes without saying, but what goes on in relation to young people in the Muslim Arab world reflects ongoing pressures in relation to existing challenges, the outcomes of which will have significant implications for policy, economy and society. One particular point of interest seems to be the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) for youth engagement, participation and development; however, this cannot be seen to be the exclusive domain of contemporary politics. The role of word of mouth and face-to-face interaction and communication are still rather important.

There are, moreover, potential limitations of ICT as a resource for change when there are restrictions to its access. Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger and Twitter can be “shut down” at a moment’s notice if certain states wish it. Nevertheless, it is without question that these localized forms of political mobilization have had a global impact — one cannot underestimate this in relation to recent events surrounding the “American Autumn,” which has seen young people organize active challenges to the existing dominant order, with similar approaches to “taking over” public spaces and protesting in large numbers and in spite of crackdowns or violent reprisals by various states.

Ongoing changes in South Asia

In parts of South Asia there are also similar anxieties. There has been social unrest and political upheaval in Pakistan over an historical period lasting many decades. There remain ongoing challenges to democracy and political engagement and participation. While this is under test in relation to a potential general election in 18 months’ time, what is important in the current period is the nature of the media landscape in which many of the complex debates will be aired and discussed and by a whole host of different interest groups and political machinations at play.

In Pakistan, the urban elite read the English news, while news in Urdu largely appeals to the rural masses. Critical journalists face considerable danger to their own safety and security. Pakistan has been considered one of the least safe places for journalists in which to operate, indigenous or foreign. Most Pakistanis are young people under the age of 25, as in the Muslim world in general, and in 25 years time the population of the country will double to approximately 350 million. Here too, the future of Pakistan will be increasingly determined by the role played by ICT and how important it will be in affecting youth political, cultural and social activism and mobilization.

In Western Europe, where there are over 20 million Muslims living as a minority, there are other complex challenges at play. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discourses are prominent in a range of media forms, new as well as traditional. They take many different shapes, from hostility to immigration, the constant projection of conflict and violence, a focus on the fundamentalist strains, the ongoing “othering” of the existing Orientalized “other,” a focus on misogynism and the notion that Muslims are anti-human and anti-universal rights. While these are significant exogenous factors, endogenously there are problems of internal intergenerational disconnect, leading to widening cultural gaps, economic immobility and social pressures as a result of the global “decline of masculinity,” within as well as without.

There are, nevertheless, opportunities for positive change. Young Muslims in the Arab world and South Asia want de-militarism, de-tribalism and anti-quasi-feudalism. They want political empowerment for all, men and women, regional autonomy, the deregulation and liberalization of broadcast and print media, inward investment and entrepreneurial development, including micro-financing, and a net reduction in wealth-gaps through active and effective social policy. Young Western European Muslims want fair and representative opportunities to take part in society as equal citizens of the states they are in. Moreover, given the space given to liberal critical discourses, Western Europe is an opportunity to help define the nature of a forward-looking Islam that is at peace with benevolent capitalism, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, with lessons for both the Eastern Muslim world and Muslims in the West.

But in the wider Muslim world, the importance of technological and political investment for economic and social change cannot be taken too lightly. The challenges are significant in the current period, but every challenge is an opportunity. Considerable efforts are needed to develop media infrastructure, improve its access and to ensure journalists and writers do not live in fear or engage in self-censorship. The stability of the entire MENA and South Asia region over the next two decades is at stake, while the EU still struggles out of recession, and the US economy remains weak for another five to seven years at least.

As the East and the West look in earnest at their troubles within and with a deep sense that things must get a lot worse before they get any better, Turkey looks aloft, taking bold strides domestically and internationally, as the world watches and waits with baited breath to see its next move — a very unusual position to be in but one Turkey is ostensibly engaging with considerable ease and confidence in the present climate. It is a question of time and space to determine how matters will pan out in the long run, here and in the rest of the world. But what is sure is that various media and political discourses will define eventualities as much as they are a function of these very same media and political events. It is precisely where the role and function of youth and ICT is one certain outcome in an otherwise murky and misty path ahead.

*Dr. Tahir Abbas is currently an associate professor of sociology at Fatih University in İstanbul, Turkey. His most recent book is “Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics: The British Experience” (Routledge, 2011)



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