- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Gotham Books (Oct 30 2007)
- Language: English
As most of you have probably noted already, global terrorism has spawned a whole battalion of young men in the Middle East willing and able to fight for the cause, or Jihad as it is known to many. Again, for many of us, these young men (and women) will never be more than a name (sometimes, not even that) ...they are just a group of young people prepared to give up their lives for a cause. Haven't you often wondered who these young people are? Where they come from? Why they do what they do? Have you ever wondered what it might be like to meet them on a social level and to just get to know them as people rather than fighters or terrorists?
Jared Cohen, a 25-year old Connecticut native did precisely that. He traveled to the Middle East in 2004-2006, met with young members of the Hezbollah, student activists in Iran and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. His travels are chronicled in the excellent memoir and travelogue, 'Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East".
So, what did he find?
In Iran he found the young people a very resilient lot. This group did not experience the revolution directly. Nor did they suffer under the Shah’s rule that preceded it. They did not fight in Iran’s brutal and lengthy war with Iraq. They have grown up exclusively under Iran’s strange blend of theocracy and democracy and they are far from happy with it, despite all that however, they refuse to give up on Iran. The Iranian young people Cohen met refuse to have their identities hijacked by oppressive and narrow-minded political or religious entities. According to Cohen - and this is really interesting - Iranian young people have emerged as the de facto opposition in that country, in the sense that by virtue of mass action they brought about (and continue to do so) a number of social and recreational changes in the country..
A female Dervish performs the Sufi Dance before a mixed-sex crowd at a dinner in a private house in North Tehran. Women are not allowed to dance in public and Sufi mysticism is strongly discouraged by the authorities,
Just reading about the resilient spirit of these young men and women makes me very hopeful for a new and gentler Iran. The other revelation Cohen makes is, that contrary to the anti-US propaganda that the political machine of Iran likes spewing, Iranian youth have absolutely no quarrel with America. They like Americans and they want us to know that! In part, the reason why the Iranian population is the most pro-American of any of the other Middle Eastern states Cohen visited is because the youth population is guided by a core principle which is, we'll love anything our government hates and we'll hate anything our government loves!
In Lebanon, Cohen found that the youth are only just coming together as Lebanese and taking immense pride in doing so. During the 20-year long occupation of Lebanon by Syria most Lebanese youth suffered from an identity crisis. Because they were controlled by Syria they were afraid to discover who they really were. However, after Syria pulled out most youth now feel Lebanese. The troubling bit about Lebanon is the influence of Hezbollah (Children of Jihad contains a fine chapter on the origins of the Hezbollah- one of the finest I have ever read) on the youth. What makes the Hezbollah so dangerous and troubling is that its members have managed to infiltrate Lebanon's universities and other institutions so seamlessly that no one ever knows they're there until it's too late. The author asks, could it be that they are also in the US "being" Americans, doing regular things that all Americans do, like attending school, eating at restaurants etc. unbeknown to the rest of us?
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, listen to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah who speaks via a video link to a rally. AP Photo by Hussain Malla
Cohen's visit to the Palestinian camps (especially the Ayn al-Hilwah camp which houses the extremists) on the outskirts of Lebanon is probably the moving and chilling account of them all. According to Cohen, as the adult generations of Palestinians fight for a return to their homeland, it seems that many of the youth are fighting simply for a better life! Lebanon is one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East, yet the Palestinians are made to feel like second-class citizens, a burden on the society. The youth would like to contribute to society but because they are not given permission to move out of their camps, they have few options but to turn to the Cause. Extremist groups offer young Palestinians an outlet for adventure and a sense of belonging, not to mention, a heroic aftermath. You can't completely blame them for going that route...very often it's all they can do! Is the international community listening?
Syrian youth are highly nationalistic and pride themselves on their love of country. It's not that Syrian youth have it easier than their brethren in Lebanon it's just that their government has managed to seduce them into believing that patience, not agitation, brings about change. There are signs, however, that there is a limit to this patience and some Syrian youth are pushing for greater reforms, although they are still in the minority.
The author was happiest whilst in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, also known as, 'The Other Iraq". Not only does it have the most magnificent landscape with large canyons, gorgeous mountains and impressive waterfalls, but The Iraqi Kurds are full of gratitude to the American army whom they see as liberators, not occupiers. The young Kurds do not indulge in the same wild,crazy and defiant parties like the young Iranians and Lebanese, nor are they submissive like the Syrian youth, instead, they are very focused on building themselves a democratic society. They have a vision, they love their country - Kurdistan - and have a developed sense of citizenship. Of all the youth in the Middle East they are the least likely to want to leave their country for greener pastures.
So after meeting youth from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestinian and Kurdish youth, how does Cohen feel about the future of the Middle East?
According to Cohen, the widely broadcast images of violent, angry and fanatical Muslims are hardly representative of the majority of the Middle East. Middle Eastern youth are politically savvy and and find it easy to distinguish between governments, people and religion. Most know the difference between Americans and the American government and wish that Americans, too would make the distinction between the people of the Middle East and their tyrannical regimes.
Unlike the earlier generations the youth of today are heavily into technology and are using it to communicate,not just with one another but with the rest of the world...in other words, Middle Eastern youth are accessible and will listen if the rest of the world engages them. At the moment, extremists have already made inroads into shaping the opinions of these young people, the international community needs have greater communication with these youth..they are sure to help us find creative solutions for peace in that region someday.
If you are interested in the affairs of the Middle East, or simply enjoy a good travel book packed with history and conversations, you might want to give this book a whirl.