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Arab youth: Optimistic despite turmoil

January 7, 2018

A study by Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation shows that young people from Arabic-speaking countries have an optimistic outlook on life, but little faith in politics. DW spoke to the study's co-editor for more insight.

Young people sitting outside a theater
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Belaid

DW: Mr. Gertel, which of the study's findings surprised you most?

Jörg Gertel: I find the contrast between the region's volatile economic, political and security situation and young people's optimistic view of the future most surprising.

How do you explain this?

There is a two-part answer for this. These teenagers' parents entered the labor market during a time when there were many relatively secure jobs working for the state. They enjoyed a better education than their parents. Some still live at home, others have moved out.

This an important distinction to make: those who still live with their parents feel protected and deem their economic situation quite promising. Whereas those who've moved out and started a family of their own say their situation is bad or even very bad. So once a person begins to take economic responsibility for his or her own life, and for that of others, the person's assessment changes.

And yet, 65 percent of youngsters are optimistic about the future. Does that mean they're not actually ready to leave for Europe at the drop of a hat?

That is one of the study's most interesting findings. Between half and two-thirds of those surveyed said immigration was not an option. Only 7 percent said they wanted to move abroad. One-third said they were undecided.

An Egyptian protester waves his national flag while making the victory sign outside the parliament building during clashes with soldiers near Cairo's Tahrir Square on December 16, 2011
The unbridled optimism of the Arab Spring is long over, but changes are happening throughout the Arab regionsImage: AFP/Getty Images/M. Abed

The Arab Spring has had a strong impact on these teenagers. Have they lost hope in democratic reforms?

It is clear to see that practically nobody wants to get involved in politics, and party politics in particular. The study shows that youngsters have the greatest trust in God. This faith has no political quality; their faith is a private matter. The youngsters distrust the political class. They want nothing to do with them. A deep rift divides them and the political world.   

If religion is growing increasingly important for young Arabs, does this mean radical Islam could become more powerful?

On the contrary. Those who are doing really badly might have trust only in two institutions: the family, which can usually be relied upon to help. And in extremely severe circumstances, like the famine that is affecting Yemen, when even families struggle or fail to support the weak and everyone is fighting for survival, people resort to their belief in God. The study shows that this faith is regarded as a personal affair that nobody else should interfere with. 

Professor Jörg Gertel
Religion is becoming a private affair, says Jörg GertelImage: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

The regular Shell Youth study surveys youngsters living in Germany. How similar or dissimilar are the life experiences and beliefs of German teenagers and their Arab peers?

There are several differences but also major similarities. When it comes to values, God plays a big role for Arab youth. German teens say they value a partner whom they can trust, and good friends who accept them as they are. Above all, they reject conformity. German and Arab young people share a respect for law and order; they value family life, hard work and dedication.

Both groups also afforded similar importance to accepting dissenting opinions and supporting those who've been marginalized by society. Here, German and Arab youth are very similar in their opinions. 

How about Muslims living in Germany?

We've compared them to young Muslims living in Arab countries. You can tell that there's an exchange and process of mutual learning between Muslim and non-Muslim youngsters in Germany, and that they are beginning to share the same values. If you look at what Muslims in Germany value most, you see that they are similar to their peers. 

Professor Jörg Gertel from Leipzig University is the co-editor of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's study "Coping with Uncertainty: Youth in the MENA Region."

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