Occidentalism in Arab youth research?

Edward Said’s classic, Orientalism (1977), highlighted the bias of western cultural representations of Arab peoples, searching always for exoticism in their individual behaviour and social practices.

Album Cover of the Arabian Knightz

It was explained as part and parcel of a post-colonial image of the world and of a strategy for imperialistic domination. Nowadays, the focus on and misrepresentation of Islamic socio-religious specificities by the Western media—often linking them to terrorism and conflict throughout the Arab world—still gives Western societies a distorted view of their Arab counterparts. Western people largely ignore the situation of actual day-to-day life in Arab countries and societies, in stark contrast to the high degree of knowledge of Western societies and way of life that Arab populations have.

Nevertheless, if one reviews current scholarly literature on Arab societies, and, in particular, that written about young Arabs, it is possible to see precisely the contrary inclination. Identifying with their subject of study, many researchers tend to underline how similar they are to young Westerners: they are modern and use the internet intensively (some statistics on internet use among young Arabs put it higher than the level of youth literacy!), they engage in political activism through social media, are sexually active in all possible ways and they excel in rap, engaged theatre and all other standard expressions of youth alternative culture. All this is of course true; the issue is how representative it is of the mainstream Arab youth population.

Hyperactive youth. A good example can be drawn from the book Jeunesses Arabes. Du Maroc au Yemen: loisirs, cultures et politiques, by Laurent Bonnefoy and Myriam Catusse (2013). This excellent book aims to illustrate the state of the Arab youth population through 37 individual accounts of young people from Morocco to Yemen, focussing on real life stories. The approach is innovative, informative and vivid at the same time. However, a review of the selection of “case stories” included in the book is striking. One can find Saudi joyriders obsessed by high-speed driving and buya girls with a male aesthetic;musicians and film-makers from Alexandria in Egypt; Saudi, Moroccan and Algerian rappers and rockers; well-to-do Jordanian youths indulging in nights out on Amman’s Rainbow Street; Tunisian bloggers and workers’ activists; Lebanese leftist activists or school theatre promoters; Sahraouian protesters; new Sufis or Internet activists from Syria; Salafists in Yemen; young prostitutes from Tangier and even a suicide in the Algerian Kabyle.

Together they build up a fascinating mosaic of social dynamics in those societies, but also a rather biased representation of a hyperactive youth population difficult to reconcile with the statistics on joblessness, educational attainment, political participation, transition to adulthood and the hopelessness experienced by many young people in the region. One would conclude that all young people in those countries are artists or activists deeply committed to breaking social and cultural taboos. In fact, the rough data suggests that the Algerian hittists or the Palestinian football fans also depicted in the series might be more representative, and that a deep sense of identification with traditional religious values is also present among the younger generations. Indeed, the rural youth, for instance, are largely ignored in the book (a single case is included, despite the fact that at least 40% of young Arabs still live in rural areas). The sample features no street vendors, no school dropouts, no taxi drivers, no simple university students and no tourism sector workers or young married housewives. No accounting is made for the three-quarters of young citizens who do not participate in elections, the 40% in neither employment nor education, or the 10% who are still illiterate.

Entrepreneurs and the Unemployed. The same goes for the fascination of policy-oriented researchers with young Arab entrepreneurs, particularly Arab women entrepreneurs (among many other books and reports on this rather minority phenomenon, see Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World). In the same vein, analysis of youth unemployment by policy-oriented research typically focuses on unemployed graduates, ignoring the fact that they only account for at most one in three young unemployed people in the region (even if unemployment rates are higher for graduates than for other youth groups).

This endeavour of a large part of Arab youth research to “normalize” Arab young people, to make them equivalent to young Westerners —under the common influence of cultural and economic globalization and new technologies— leaves out the large majority of their target group and risks skewing the image of young Arabs conveyed (and hence research results (and any policy prescriptions based on them). It is a mirror distorting reality as dangerously as the Orientalist one so masterfully described by Edward Said 35 years ago.

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