Thursday, March 30, 2017

Youth: The Hidden Treasure of Iraq (and the MENA region)

Youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp
This past December I participated in the training of youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp at the University of Kufa in Iraq.  The youth group leaders came from all parts of Iraq and represented Iraq’s tapestry of ethnic and religious groups: Shica, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Sabaens and Shabak.  The young men and women with whom I had the pleasure to interact were some of the most impressive youth I have met during my many years of visiting Iraq.

The training was organized by the UNESCO Chair in Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies, and was funded by a grant from the IREX Foundation.  Iraq’s first UNESCO chair is held by co-chair, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, University of Kufa, and co-chair Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, director of the al-Khoei Institute in al-Najaf.
The Youth Camp was extremely successful and raised the question of the role of youth in rebuilding Iraq following the end of authoritarian rule.   Constituting more than 70% of the Iraqi population, youth represent a huge resource which has yet to be utilized to address Iraq’s many economic, social and cultural needs.  The question thus becomes: why have youth been so neglected by political leaders and how can they better contribute to rebuilding post-Bacthist Iraq?

In my study of Iraqi youth over many years, it is clear they have been consistently left out of the country’s social and political equation.  Virtually all Iraqi youth with whom I’ve interacted feel that they are not respected.  Many argue that they are viewed with suspicion because the country’s political elites view them as a demographic which threatens the status quo. The pattern and attitudes towards Iraqi youth reflects similar attitudes in much of the developing world.  Why are youth seen as threatening?

The instability and weak political institutions in many developing countries, combined with a lack of resources, make it difficult for youth to find a place in society.  With the lack of employment opportunities, youth are highly discontented and often politicized.  This discontent is enhanced when youth see the corruption and nepotism which characterize the political systems in which they live, favoring the relatives and friends of political leaders.

Youth are often in the forefront of political change.  In the Arab Spring, for example, it was youth who organized the demonstrations and political movements which successfully toppled four of the MENA region’s longest serving dictators, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

Of course, youth do not always contribute in positive ways to nation-building.  They often constitute the shock troops that enable sub-national militias, such as Hizballah in Lebanon, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, and are the reason terrorist organizations, such as al-Qacida and the Islamic State have been successful.

However, the Western and regional media focus on youth who challenge political systems in the MENA region belies the many youth who are working within the system to bring about progressive change.  This is certainly the case in Iraq where many youth organizations are engaged in a wide variety of activities, including conflict resolution, finding employment for youth and promoting gender equality.
Faculty of Law & Political Science democratization class , University of Kufa, with Drs. Hassan Nadhem, Rich & Davis
My experiences with a number of Iraqi youth groups illustrate their potential to have a positive political and social impact, not just in Iraq but throughout the MENA region.  First, youth thirst for change.  In March, 2016, I taught a course on democratization at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa with my colleague, Dr. Roland Rich, former Executive Director of the United Nations Democracy Fund.   

The students' enthusiastic interest in the topic was striking.  Indeed, Dr. Rich and I found it difficult to leave the classroom after our lectures were finished because students had so many questions, and wanted to continue our discussions.

When students asked us what could be done to bring meaningful democratic change to Iraq, Dr. Rich and I asked them if they were registered to vote.  When the class responded affirmatively, we asked whether they might consider forming their own political organizations, e.g., a youth party (hizb al-shabab).  The students viewed this suggestion very favorably.  However, without the institutional support and mentoring by members of the political class in Iraq, such an initiative would be very difficult to implement.
Drs. Roland Rich, Kamal Nadhmi & Eric Davis visit the Institute of Development in al-Najaf
A second encounter with youth during my March 2016 trip to south-central Iraq was the visit Dr. Rich and I made to the Institute for Development, Economy and the Media in al-Najaf.  Active in all Iraq’s 18 provinces, the Institute seeks to find employment for Iraqi youth.  It is also works to protect women’s rights, an important issue following the collapse of Saddam Husayn’s regime, given the relaxation of protections for women during the severe UN sanctions regime of the 1990s. 

One of the important services the Institute provides is to intervene on behalf of women whose husbands engage in spousal abuse.  The Institute’s female employees take women to local prosecutors to stop the violence and seek to have their husbands become involved in counseling so that the abusive behavior doesn’t continue.

In training youth group leaders in Iraq this past December, I had the privilege working with several colleagues, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina from George Mason University, Dr. Ayad Anbar and Dr. Hassan Alsarraf, from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa, and youth working with the UNESCO Chair for Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies.

The training involved a mix of Iraqi history on which to model contemporary social and political behavior and projects by Iraqi youth.   Here the notion that Iraqis have not been inherently sectarian, but have enjoyed a lengthy history of inter-ethnic and inter-sect cooperation, was used to bring to the group’s attention several important examples from Iraqi history.

My approach was to employ the concept of “historical memory” in my training module. I began with three “historical modules” which illustrate how deeply Iraqis value learning, education and culture and show Iraq’s important contributions to world civilization.  I also emphasized how these historical traditions demonstrate how Iraqis can live together.

I used three models from Iraqi history to promote the idea of Iraq as a society, polity and cultural entity.  These models were intended to allow Iraqis of all different groups and ideologies to come together to celebrate Iraq’s contributions over time to world civilization, to the surrounding Middle East and, most importantly, towards developing an Iraqi society which has endured, despite great hardship.

Ancient Mesopotamian civilization, cultural contributions made under the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 CE), and the modern Iraqi nationalist movement (1908-1963) each offer an inspirational and non-sectarian example which can provide guidance for national reconciliation in contemporary Iraq.
Frieze in US House of Representatives

Ancient Mesopotamians developed the world’s first language, cuneiform.  Renowned traders, they needed a means for keeping track of the goods they sent to kingdoms beyond the Fertile Crescent.  The first use of the world “freedom” - amagi in ancient Sumerian - was developed in Mesopotamia.  Ancient Iraq also boasts the first parliament and the first recorded time in which a parliament exercised control of decision-making by an executive, in this case requiring the king to obtain permission to go to war.

For sectarians who would seek to claim ancient Mesopotamian accomplishments for Semitic peoples, there are records of the word “Curd” being discovered dating back to 3000 BCE.  Thus all of Iraq’s ethnosectarian groups can revel in its contributions to the world.
Hammurabi frieze-US Supreme Court

Although it came to an ignominious end in 1258 CE, the Abbasid Empire made major contributions to world civilization.  The development of algebra (al-jabr) and chemistry (al-kimiya) were accompanied by machines such as a rudimentary computer.

One of the most important contributions was made by the Caliph al-Ma’mun (806-831 CE).  A rationalist sympathetic to modern knowledge, al-Ma’mun sent his advisers to the far reaches of the empire and beyond to gather all knowledge of the known world.  He decided to build a combination library and university in which to house this knowledge which was known as the “House of Wisdom" (Bayt al-Hikma). By the  middle of the 9th century CE, Bayt al-Hikma had the world's largest collection of books.
Scholars studying at the Bayt al-Hikma-Yahya al-Wasiti drawing
Among the literature which was translated were books on Greek politics and literature.  These books were translated from the Arabic into Latin during the European Renaissance and later into other Western languages.  Thus Iraqis can be proud of the manner in which an important of Western cultural heritage was preserved by Iraqi Arab scholars.

A third module focused on the Iraqi national movement which began to coalesce in the last quarter of the 19th century, but rapidly developed after the Young Turk Revolt of 1908.  With the Young Turks seeking to “Turkify” the remaining provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in an effort to create what they considered a modern nation-state with a single language and cultural heritage, Iraqis rejected calls to make Turkish the official language of government and the education system.

The "identity politics,” sparked by the Young Turk Revolt, intensified with the British invasion of 1914.  The refusal of the British to give Iraq independence led to a powerful uprising – the June – October 1920 Revolution (al-thawra al-cIraqiya al-kubra).  The 1920 uprising was noted for the solidarity of Iraq’s constituent ethnic groups, particularly the Shica, Sunna, Christians and Jews.

When the British sought to use the traditional colonial “divide and conquer” strategy, Iraqis purposely engaged in behavior to resist it.  Sunnis and Shica prayed in each other’s mosques – a practice still used today – and made self-conscious efforts to bring Christians and Jews into demonstrations against the British.

As I document in Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (, the Iraqi nationalist movement was characterized by four qualities: inter-ethnic cooperation, strong social justice and civil society impulses, a vigorous press, and artistic movements which valorized national-popular culture and traditions and stressed opposition to political authority through non-violent means.

The Iraqi nationalist movement offers a vision of Iraq which counters the sectarian conflict and violence which characterized the post-2003 US invasion.  While beyond the scope of this post, it can be strongly argued that the US’s role in the construction of a political system which was placed under the control of “carpetbagger” sectarian entrepreneurs explains much of the difficulty Iraq has faced ion developing a stable, democratic political system after 2003.

In addition to having the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of Iraqi youth, I also had the opportunity to visit an active youth group, al-Moja, in Kufa.  This organization offers youth in the Kufa-Najaf area the ability to gather to discuss important issues of the day, borrow books on a wide variety of topics (in Arabic) from a large lending library, the ability to work on social media projects and to use a large artists' space.

Lending library at al-Moja youth organization, Kufa, Iraq
Spending an evening at al-Moja was eye-opening.  The youth who attended offered a diversity of well-thought throw ideas and opinions about many critical issues facing Iraq, from employment to education to women's rights to the need for the government to provide meaningful social services.  That faculty members from the University of Kufa were present at the gathering, and clearly had good relations with its members, was likewise impressive.

Empowering youth to implement positive social and political change

If Iraqi youth are to empower themselves, the impetus must come from them.  No "top-down" approach, whether by the older generation - be it Iraqi or foreign - can help them achieve their aspirations and goals.  The fact that many youth have alreasdy organzied themselves into civil society organzbaitions offers a hopeful sign for the future.

The topic of empowering youth is a complex one and will provide the topic for a new post to be uploaded in the near future.