Sign Up

Young Arabs and Fear of Westernization

How can reform benefit both the modern and traditionalist aspirations of young Arabs?

August 17, 2003

How can reform benefit both the modern and traditionalist aspirations of young Arabs?

About a decade ago, in a casual conversation with an elderly Arab intellectual, I expressed my frustration that governments in the Middle East had been unable to liberalize their economies and societies in the way that the East Asians had.

"Look at Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul," I said, pointing to their extraordinary economic achievements.

The man — a gentle, charming, erudite and pro-Western journalist — straightened up and replied sharply, "Look at them. They have simply aped the West. Their cities are cheap copies of Houston and Dallas. That may be all right for fishing villages, but we are heirs to one of the great civilizations of the world. We cannot become slums of the West."

This sense of pride and fall is at the heart of the Arab problem. It makes economic advance impossible and political progress fraught with difficulty.

America thinks of modernity as all good — and it has been almost all good for America. But for the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed — socialism, secularism, nationalism — has turned into a dead end.

People often wonder why the Arab countries will not try secularism. In fact, for most of the last century, most of them did. Now, people associate the failure of their governments with the failure of secularism and of the Western path.

The Arab world is disillusioned with the West when it should be disillusioned with its own leaders.

The new, accelerated globalization that flourished in the 1990s has hit the Arab world in a strange way. Its societies are open enough to be disrupted by modernity — but not so open that they can ride the wave.

Arabs see the television shows, eat the fast foods and drink the sodas. But they don't see genuine liberalization in their societies — with increased opportunities and greater openness. They don't see economic opportunities and dynamism — just the same elites controlling things.

Globalization in the Arab world is the critic's caricature of globalization — a slew of Western products and billboards with little else.

For the elites in Arab societies it means more things to buy. But for some of them it is also an unsettling phenomenon that threatens their comfortable base of power.

This mixture of fascination and repulsion with the West — with modernity — has utterly disoriented the Arab world. Young men, often better educated than their parents, leave their traditional villages to find work.

They arrive in the noisy, crowded cities of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or go to work in the oil states. (Almost 10 percent of Egypt's working population worked in the Gulf states at one point.)

In their new world, they see great disparities of wealth and the disorienting effects of modernity. Most unsettlingly, they see women, unveiled and in public places, taking buses, eating in cafes and working alongside them.

Young Arabs come face to face with the contradictions of modern life — seeking the wealth of the new world but the tradition and certainty of the old.

Globalization has caught the Arab world at a bad demographic moment. Its societies are going through a massive youth bulge. More than half of the Arab world is under the age of 25. Fully 75% of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30.

A bulge of restless young men in any country is bad news. Almost all crime in every society is committed by men between the ages of 15 and 25. Lock up all young men, one social scientist pointed out, and violent crime will drop by more than 95%.

(That is why the socialization of young men—in schools, colleges and camps — has been one of the chief challenges for civilized societies.)

When accompanied by even smaller economic and social change, a youth bulge produces a new politics of protest. In the past, societies in these circumstances have fallen prey to a search for revolutionary solutions.

France went through a youth bulge just before the French Revolution in 1789 — and so did Iran before its revolution in 1979. Even the United States had a youth bulge that peaked in 1968 — the year of the country's strongest social protests since the Great Depression. In the case of the Arab world, this upheaval has taken the form of a religious resurgence.

What can be done to resolve all these tensions? There is a dominant business class in the Middle East, but it owes its position to oil — or to connections to the ruling families. Its wealth is that of feudalism, not capitalism, and its political effects remain feudal as well.

A genuinely entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East — pulling along all others in its wake.

If culture matters, this is one place it would help. Arab culture for thousands of years has been full of traders, merchants and businessmen. The bazaar is probably the oldest institution in the Middle East. And Islam was historically highly receptive to business — Mohammed himself was a businessman.

Ultimately, the battle for reform is one Middle Easterners will have to fight — which is why there needs to be some group within these societies that advocates and benefits from economic and political reform.

Adapted from “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright © 2003 by Fareed Zakaria. Used by permission of the author.