DEAD SEA, Jordan — Governments and NGOs need to find a better offer to make to young people in the Middle East and North Africa by supporting youth activism and enterprise if violent extremism is to be tackled, experts believe.
Young people’s enthusiasm for changing their societies and circumstances can be harnessed and redirected into social impact and entrepreneurial endeavour, it was suggested at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, which brought together more than 1000 politicians, business people, civil society organizations and youth leaders in Jordan, to discuss the region’s biggest challenges.
Speaking at a session about fighting online extremism, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said: “Radicalization is not so difficult to understand. Any young generation wants to change — I was a radical when I was young. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is the format in which it is becoming [violent]” that needs to be tackled. Young people need to be offered an alternative when they are at risk of violent radicalization, he said.
Suleiman Bakhit, chief executive officer of Hero Factor — which uses comic books to challenge extremist narratives — said that those joining extremist groups are typically in their late teens or early 20s — younger than in the past — and are attracted to extremism because they “lack a sense of identity, a sense of belonging; they’re seeking acceptance, heroism [and] social status.”
Issuing “counter-narratives” by criticizing the message of these violent ideologies is “not enough any more,” he said. Instead, we have to “offer the kids an alternative narrative — something better.”
“What are those alternative narratives?” he asked. “Let the kids decide, but … they have to be based on service to others. You want to be a hero? Fine! You want to have social status? Great! Why don’t we use the school system to teach the youth that you can achieve heroism [through other means]? Be a hero against poverty, against inequality in your own country.”
At the moment, “we don’t have any positive social movements that can replace this ideology … especially targeted at youth,” he said. “We’re really good at telling the kids ‘don’t do this or don’t do that,’ but what’s the alternative?”
Bakhit’s organization produces superhero comic books in Jordan which promote positive heroism and adventure-seeking as an antidote to extremism. It has received a grant from the King Abdullah II Fund for Development and sold more than a million copies of its publications.
Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan, the 22-year-old heir apparent to the throne, also tackled the subject in his opening speech to the conference — the first World Economic Forum on MENA since 2015, after last year’s event, due to be held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, was cancelled following a terror attack on a passenger plane.
He suggested that supporting youth enterprise and the region’s burgeoning startup scene would offer an outlet and opportunity for young people’s “yearning and thirst.”
The Middle East and North Africa is one of the youngest regions in the world, where about half of the population is aged below 24 years and youth unemployment hovers at around 30 percent. A further one million young people continue to enter the region’s job market each year.
The issue has come to the fore in recent years as a huge potential source of political instability and societal pressure, as well as a risk factor in the spread of violent extremism.
“What Arab youth want is what youth everywhere want: A fair chance, a chance to be heard, a chance to make a difference,” said Prince Hussein.
But the youth of the Middle East — who are highly active online and on digital technology — are exposed to both positive and negative forces of influence, he suggested, calling for support for youth enterprise to help determine the direction they take.
Speaking to the audience of political and business leaders, he said: “What they need most is for you all to take a bet on them; to support them morally and financially so they can create their own impact. They need your help to advance and scale their projects so they can see for themselves the difference they can make. Our young people need a region-wide support system for opportunity, access and hope.”
How best to encourage and support youth ventures in the Middle East through access to finance and regulatory reform — for example, by encouraging investment in startups from sovereign wealth funds and international financial institutions, or by cutting red tape and unifying regulations across the region — was a subject that dominated the conference.
“If we all do our part, this can be a once in a generation chance to drive radical change across this region and ultimately drive radicalization out,” the prince said. “It can be our chance … to bridge the gap between what young people see and long for online, and what they have offline … I urge you to step in, extend your hand, unleash their power and potential and guide them to safer shores.”