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Middle East

Arab youth reject 'Islamic State' but key misgivings remain

A new survey shows that a majority of young Arabs disavows the "Islamic State"militant group. But a key factor to 'IS' recruitment continues to plague the region. DW examines the survey's findings and what lies beneath.

The ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller (ABM) public relations firm on Tuesday published its eighth annual Arab Youth Survey shedding light on key trends and perceptions among the Arab world's largest age bracket. The firm conducted 3,500 face-to-face interviews with men and women aged 18 to 24 in 16 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, excluding Syria.

The top finding of the study showed that "an overwhelming majority of young Arabs reject Daesh (ISIS) and believe the group will fail to establish an Islamic State," ABM said in its report, referring to the militant group by its Arabic acronym.

When asked whether they would support the "Islamic State" if the militant group "did not use so much violence," 78 percent of respondents said they would not. Some 76 percent of those queried disagreed with the statement that the militant group would establish an Islamic state in the Arab world.

Some 50 percent of respondents also said the rise of the militant group "is the biggest obstacle in the Middle East," while unemployment and civil unrest received 36 and 34 percent to the multiple-answer question.

What drives 'IS' recruitment?

According to the study, the "lack of jobs and opportunities for young people" was the largest driver for joining the "Islamic State" militant group.

Mohamed Abdelmaguid, Middle East and Africa analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told DW that the lack of meaningful employment and opportunities to participate in the labor economy will continue to play into the hands of the militant group, saying it "will get worse before it gets better."

"The finding is significant as most economies in the Middle East are growing at rates below what is required to generate enough employment opportunities to curb unemployment - official statistics do not capture this phenomenon," Abdelmaguid said.

"At the same time, there is no serious commitment to economic and political reform in the region among the ruling elite. As a result, rising unemployment, a widening gulf between rich and the poor against a backdrop of continued political repression will continue to provide fertile ground for recruitment by such groups in the short-term," Abdelmaguid added.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2015 reported that the Middle East and North Africa regions were still subject to the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, with 28.2 and 30.5 percent respectively.

The rates have "continued to worsen since 2012, particularly for young women," the ILO added in its report.

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The disconnect

Paul Salem, vice president of policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told DW that while youth unemployment ranks highest in the Middle East, the region also has a high youth literacy rate of 92 percent, creating a "disconnect between their capacities and the opportunities open to them."

"The survey results first reflect youth's feelings that unemployment is the biggest problem they face. It is natural that they then name that as the primary cause of joining ISIS. It is what they experience most painfully," Salem said.

"But it is important to note that the vast majority of unemployed youth in the Arab world do not join ISIS or other radical groups. The push to join ISIS is a combination of youth frustration - correctly identified mainly as unemployment, but also the lack of political rights and participation - and the availability of radicalizing ideologies and networks." Salem told DW, refering to the group by an alternative acronym.

The militant group exploits such issues for recruitment, said Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in comments on the study's findings.

"The organization thrives on political, economic, social and religious failures. Daesh may weaken and disappear, but the underlying sickness will remain and similar groups will emerge if that sickness is not addressed," Hassan said.

"The survey's findings should be a reminder to everyone that Daesh did not simply materialize out of thin air," he added.

Stability versus democracy?

Five years after hundreds of thousands of predominantly young protesters took to the streets of their nation's capitals to demand political change, many of those who participated in the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere have seen their revolutions usurped by conflict or resurgent authoritarianism.

It comes as no surprise then that the majority of the queried Arab youth said they valued "promoting stability in the region" more than "promoting democracy."

"There are 200 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Always spirited, often frustrated, they represent either the region's biggest dividend, or its biggest threat," said Sunil John, founder and chief executive of the ABM.

"It is my personal view that they are a dividend; a wellspring of untapped potential to rival any oil or gas field, and a net benefit to the region and the world. The governments of the Middle East and North Africa cannot afford to let them down," John added.

However, stability does not necessarily trump civil liberties and human rights. At least 67 percent of respondents said they agreed that "Arab leaders should do more to improve the personal freedom and human rights of their people."

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