Norms and Values
The Future of Youth in the Middle East

“There are no whole truths only half truths, and taking half-truths as whole truths is playing the devil.” – Alfred North Whitehead

The question of the future of youth in the Middle East can lend itself to inaccurate generalizations - even the categorization of youth as a politically distinct category is fraught with ambiguity. Furthermore, it is very difficult to generalize across a region with enormous diversity, the context is very different in Lebanon than in the Gulf, or elsewhere.

However, there are two major trends and dynamics that are worthwhile examining more closely as they affect the nature of society in the Middle East moving forward. The first is that youth, and especially young men, are prone to be drawn to radical political groups and violent extremism. This is partly based on socio-biological realities. 

As Joe Herbert, a professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has said, “[Young men] are particularly liable to become fanatics. ...They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable ... and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent.” 

Young men are built to fight, and this powerful drive can be channelled by any strong ideology, it does not have to be religious extremism. Indeed, unlike what many believe, it is not poverty that leads men to join extremist groups - many are of a middle-class origin and well educated -  it is unmet or badly met emotional needs, such as a search for meaning, belonging and status.  

Critically, heritage and identity often provide the symbolic language and backdrop for motivating these groups into action. Most successful political organizations in the region are ideological but also based on identity and tradition, eg religious Zionism or Iranian and Shia inspired militias. This is a hijack of both basic human motivations and culture, and it is a great harvest of human capacity towards demonization of others, and an outsize political role that sways a society in directions that majorities do not necessarily support.

Management of such a vulnerability among youth, and especially young men, lies in a much better understanding of the psychological infrastructure that underlies these developments. Such greater knowledge will help us manage the forces at play in a more constructive fashion. A first step involves a much better understanding of our innate emotional needs and motivations. The Human Givens paradigm of understanding well-being, developed in the United Kingdom, is a clear and straightforward account of these needs, and how they play out.  

As important as the development of extremism among youth is, there is another, in some ways opposing, trend that also needs to be attended to. Joseph Henrich, a Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in his book, The Weirdest People in the World – How the West Became psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, describes how a universalist ideology is spreading across the world that is ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic’, or, as per its acronym, WEIRD.

This ideology focuses on the primacy of rights, entitlement and the individual rather than on social roles and relations or cultural context. It puts a great emphasis on individual choice and in its more radical manifestations questions even basic kinship and the nature of biological gender.       This approach has many benefits, including greater independence and empowerment of individuals which can lead to economic achievement, and protection against oppressive forces. However, it also creates problems that need to be looked at: 

Being WEIRD takes apart an implicit cultural fabric and replaces it with an explicit set of institutions and regulations. This unravelling of an organic domain can lead to a Tower of Babel with no shared narrative, accepted rules for behaviour, and, possibly worst of all, an anomie derived from a lack of meaning that had derived from social links and heritage. 
Suicide rates and drug addiction going up among young people in USA

The focus on the individual misses out on the power of the collective brain, our cultures, and access to deeper knowledge and networks therein. 

The successful development of the WEIRD paradigm in any society takes time, as it did in the West over many centuries. The tendency today to apply it quickly and formulaically is at best, an overlay over existing more organic cultural habits, and, at worse, it is misunderstood and, uprooted from its broader context of development, becomes slogans and dogmas that are misapplied with great social and political damage.

These two trends – a hijack of heritage and tradition in extremist ideology, and Western progressive individualism may end in opposition within generations not just between. Such a clash will not find easy resolution, a world of either/or whereas the answers may not come from this perspective at all. Neither approach offers a panacea nor a complete answer; neither is aware of how it relates to our prime motivations. Both are half-truths taken as whole truths.

The traditional model is strong in providing a sense of identity and belonging as well as meaning from such belonging to cultural contexts that stretch far from back into the past and far forward into the future. The WEIRD approach provides greater autonomy and independence, and a capacity for material achievement and thus prosperity that seems unrivalled. However, the Middle East will suffer from either dynamic because youth tending either way will result in unmet needs, frustration and aggression.

Managing these trends is also problematic. Unfortunately, the most common way of controlling youthful extremism or rebellion in the Middle East is the use of security systems, the ‘barbed wire’ approach of keeping misbehaviour under check, which of course comes at great cost to human welfare. This is wielded against both extremists and liberals when they threaten the current order and vested interests.

Others believe that the answers like in the power of adherence to more democratic institutions,  and related capacity building. Such a technocratic approach can work if it is based on a solid reference to basic needs and motivations that inform the humans who populate these structures. The ‘software’ is as important as the hardware, and bureaucracies and institutions are only as good as the people who operate them. 

What may be needed above all is greater knowledge of the psychology that underpins human behaviour, and the primal and innate human needs that in fact motivate us. This psychological knowledge is the missing piece of the equation, for it explains the power and attraction for youth of both extremist organizations, or those basing their life on the WEIRD approach. 

An underlying human reality lies behind both approaches, progressive or traditional. The latter ignores it, while the former abuses it: Answers come from a much better understanding of the flow of human motivation below the surface. 

Furthermore, our innate needs, play out in a living field: an organic and implicit culture based on centuries of development. “Culture, stretching in time back into the past and forward into the future as part of a living tradition; ramifying laterally into kin and community, and the land out of which we came and in which we live. But once ‘anything goes’, nothing goes. There is no purchase between the individual and the world.”    

Healthier Middle Eastern societies can result when there is a culture that is neither the result of stringing together atomized individuals, nor an insistent rigidity of culture based on unshakable tradition, or, when the dynamic between belonging and being an individual is viewed comprehensively and in context, not a victory of on an approach over another.

The greatest irony of all is that there is a massive heritage in the Middle East to tap into, and evolve from. Politics is the management of such evolution, and it cannot take place intelligently without greater knowledge of what is being managed. We are made up of living and innate human needs, at once individuals and yet intrinsic parts of a living culture – and from there we can perceive a politics that works.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.