What Do Arab Youth Really Want? The Answer May Surprise You (and Donald Trump)

A new survey of young people’s attitudes in 16 Arab countries has just been released, and it offers two significant and related insights about them and us: There is a growing sentiment in favor of religious moderation, support for gender equity and human rights, and even admiration for the United States — almost to the point that you could allow yourself to be optimistic about the Arab future. But this could all unravel if the region becomes more destabilized, as is bound to happen if a certain person is elected president.

This is the eighth year that ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller has published its Arab Youth Survey; 3,500 face-to-face interviews were conducted in English and Arabic across the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps the most welcome finding was that, for the second year in a row, Arab youth view the rise of the Islamic State group — or in the study’s parlance, Daesh — as the top problem facing the Middle East, and are overwhelmingly opposed to the group.

Overwhelmingly, as in 78% of those surveyed rule out any support for the group even if it were to stop using so much violence. Most believe it will ultimately fail.

This marks a dramatic movement away from Islamic State. A year ago, only 60% ruled out any support for the radical group, said Donald A. Baer, Burson-Marsteller’s CEO, in a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The rejection of Islamic State is also echoed in other sentiments. More than half of the Arab youth in the survey believe that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East. And there’s notable support for human rights and gender equality.

For instance, when asked whether Arab leaders should do more to improve the personal freedom and human rights of their people, 67% agreed and only 16% disagreed. (The rest weren’t sure.)

In direct contradiction to the appalling ways that Islamic State treats women and girls, two-thirds of Arab youth said that their leaders should do more to advance the rights and personal freedom of women — an opinion shared almost equally by men and women.

Contrary to the rhetoric that we heard from certain stops on the presidential campaign trail this year, Arab youth do not hate America. In fact, when asked to name the top country to live in, the survey respondents picked the United Arab Emirates first — not surprisingly, since their biggest concern is employment and stability, and the Gulf States have plenty of both. But second was the United States.

Not only do these Arab youth view the United States as a good place to live, they ranked it second as a nation to emulate. Baer said that in 2012, America wasn’t even ranked in the top five on that question.

Meantime, the United States is seen by 25% of the respondents as the top ally in the region, ranking third behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But here the country-by-country differences are telling: Youth in Iraq, Yemen and what the survey calls Palestine — Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza — overwhelmingly consider America an enemy. That is significant in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and deeply depressing after the lives and treasure lost in our disastrous war in Iraq.

In the presentation, Baer and CFR senior fellow Steven A. Cook compared some of these findings to American attitudes, with worrying results. Citing general population surveys, they said that 53% of Americans think that at least half of Arab youth support Islamic State, whereas only 13% of Arab youth say they’d do so, ever. Many more Americans think Islamic State will succeed than do the young people actually living in those countries.

These gaps “underscore the level of fear and misunderstanding in this country,” Baer said. “Americans need to be educated about what’s going on in the region,” Cook added.

Someone should send this report to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, who clearly needs the education. In March he declared, “I think Islam hates us.” He promotes a foreign policy — if you can call it such — that would radically destabilize our relationships around the world.

For all the war and horror besetting the Arab world, there is great potential and reason for optimism in a next generation inclined toward modernization, openness, gender equality and respect for human rights. We must see these youth as they are, not as we need them to be to stoke our own prejudice and fears.


Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.

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What Do Arab Youth Really Want? The Answer May Surprise You (and Donald Trump)

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