Monday, March 09, 2009

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East.


  • 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.

Kurdish Youth

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.










18 comments:

Auntie, aka cagny said...

Thank you for your review of this timely book.
Next week I meet with my BookClub. I hope my group would consider reading this book with me.
cheers,

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Cagny! This book took me over a month to read...there is so much information in there...but all of it was so interesting that I didn't want to miss a word! Yes, this is a good pick for a book club read, especially if you have members that are interested in current affairs and world politics. Best of all, this book will give you hope!

kanmuri said...

Great review, it's on my list

Anonymous said...

The West must save the young Kurds from Arabic terrorism and other's.
The Kurds total different with other nation in the middle east, but unfortunately still EU and USA don't know how they important for the stability of middle east. they must has own country. They are the great supporter of freedom and democracy.

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for a most illuminating and enlightening post!!! I do consider myself fairly aware of the situation in the ME, and I have to say I learned so much more thanks to you.
A few Qs/observations/thoughts…
Was it just 9/11 that inspired Cohen, or the Iraq war or the portrayals of Muslims in mainstream media or was it a combination of all of these?
How do his observations compare to those of Tom Friedman or others you may have come across?
I have to say Cohen was spot on about his observations on the young people in Iran which others have made before too. But the principle.. “we'll love anything our government hates and we'll hate anything our government loves!” cannot be taken by anyone as support of the US by the youth of Iran no?
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? Cohen could be right or he could be a little paranoid? I say this because how can one truly gauge intent or thought? Scary too I guess?

Also don’t the Hezbollah also run a lot of things that provide social services? That may make it easier for them to infiltrate?

Unfortunately the current crisis in the world means the Palestinians are once again forgotten. But yes it is sad how even the host Islamic nations treat them.

Syria will be interesting to watch as unlike Iran and like Lebanon they have no significant crude reserves, but they do have a rich history like Lebanon too?

The Kurdish are fascinating with their own unique language and culture. Did you get a sense from reading the book that they know that they may never get their own homeland?

I am glad that Cohen found the populace of these nations especially the youth to be different and Cohen has helped bring a diversity of opinion that is sorely needed.

Thank you for telling us about this book and this interesting part of the world.

The Beautiful Alternative said...

Lotus Reeds a lot, Jared Cohen is Jewish for priest, I commend him for that to go in those eastern blocks.Nice review, it shows that most people are just human, tossed to and fro by powerful minorities, I would forget the future technology and settle for the gauges, ravines and waterfalls myself. If you could book worm your way into my site, i have a story, appreciate a comment.

apu said...

Lotus, sounds like an interesting read. I wish he'd chosen a different title though. By what measure are the youth in say, Iran or Kurdistan, children of Jihad? While claiming to fracture the myth of all Islamic youth being Jihadi, doesn't the title do precisely that? I suppose it made for more sensational marketing!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanj!

Yes, I remember from your blog, that many of the books you read have to do with the ME. What are you reading currently?


A few Qs/observations/thoughts…
Was it just 9/11 that inspired Cohen, or the Iraq war or the portrayals of Muslims in mainstream media or was it a combination of all of these?


Sanj, from what I read, Cohen has been a human rights activist in Africa ever since his student days. After 9/11 he noticed a huge increase in extremist Islamism in Africa and that made him curious as to what things might be like in the Middle East, the center of Islam, and thus his trip there. You could say there is much of an anthropologist in him/


How do his observations compare to those of Tom Friedman or others you may have come across?

To be honest, I haven't read TF in a while so I can't compare. Cohen has the style of an observer, a traveller. He loves to talk to the locals and get their version of events and that is what makes this book so interesting! Also, he is a faithful narrator of the history of a place, so you get an old versus new perspective and I really enjoyed that!


I have to say Cohen was spot on about his observations on the young people in Iran which others have made before too. But the principle.. “we'll love anything our government hates and we'll hate anything our government loves!” cannot be taken by anyone as support of the US by the youth of Iran no?

True, not literally I suppose, but it is an indication of how much they hate their government! That is why Iran is going to be such an interesting country to watch. It does seem fairly ripe for another revolution...we'll have to wait and watch.


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? Cohen could be right or he could be a little paranoid? I say this because how can one truly gauge intent or thought? Scary too I guess?

Sounds paranoid I know, but then we have to remember that the hijackers of the 9/11 planes had also very easily blended into the American community without raising any suspicions whatsoever!

Also don’t the Hezbollah also run a lot of things that provide social services? That may make it easier for them to infiltrate?

True! BTW, to really understand the power the Hezbollah wields in Lebanon one has to read Cohen's interviews with members from the Youth Faction of the Hezbollah group, it will make your hair stand on end!

Unfortunately the current crisis in the world means the Palestinians are once again forgotten. But yes it is sad how even the host Islamic nations treat them.

If the Lebanese govt. wishes to keep the Palestinian kids out of trouble they should be offering them educational and recreational facilities, not locking them up in these horrible detention centers. Restricting them to these camps simply exacerbates the problem! I cannot imagine that they cannot see that!!!

Syria will be interesting to watch as unlike Iran and like Lebanon they have no significant crude reserves, but they do have a rich history like Lebanon too?

Yes! And sadly, because they are not on the radar for most tourists, these wonderful old cities go by unnoticed and unadmired! I really would love to go to Palmyra and Damascus some day. What a treat that would be!

The Kurdish are fascinating with their own unique language and culture. Did you get a sense from reading the book that they know that they may never get their own homeland?

Cohen was very,very impressed with the Kurdish youth. He said they were sober, reflective, focused and believers in democracy. They had a vision for "Kurdistan" and it does appear to me, from what he says, that they will be able to negotiate a land for themselves.

Thank you for telling us about this book and this interesting part of the world

Hey, no problem Sanj. Thanks very much for the interest and the questions. Always nice to receive input from you!

Michelle said...

This looks like a must read. Thanks for posting about it!

Lotus Reads said...

Beautiful Alternative ~ Thank you for your note and yes, Cohen is Jewish...he mentions that a lot in his book because, contrary to what he was given to believe, the Muslim youth showed no unfavorable response when he told them he was Jewish. They made it quite clear to him that they understood the difference between the Jewish people and the government of Israel. Will visit your blog asap.

Thanks again,
Lotus Reads-a-lot! :)

@Kanmuri ~ Thanks, let me know what you think!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Apu!

Thanks so much for your comment! You make a really great point and I had wondered about the title myself, but then I remember reading somewhere that although most of us have come to associate Jihad with a battle for Islam, Jihad can also be a fight against injustice, oppression etc. For the youth of Iran their Jihad is against religious tyranny, in Kurdistan it is against oppression and occupation, and so on.

Yes, but the title does make one do a double-take. I can't tell you how many stares I would get when I read my book on the subway.

@Michelle ~ You're welcome! Thanks so much for visiting!

Sanjay said...

Lotus, thank you for taking the time to respond. :-)
I am trying to read "The Great War for civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East" by Robert Fisk. Great book but it is on hold as work and other things cropped up. :-/ Maybe in a month things will be better time wise.
Thank you for telling me re Cohen's motivation behind this book. His bio (from what you encapsulated) does explain that.
I asked about TF, because he does the same thing, although it has worn a bit thin now. :) But maybe TF overdoes his bit?
Re: Iran, I am not sure there will be a revolution there. I suspect the mullahs have a firm grip on power. But who knows? As you say should be interesting to watch as the majority of their populace are also young people.
Good point about how the 9/11 hijackers blended in. That just slipped my mind. Thanks for pointing it out.
Re: Hezbollah, I have to read Cohen's book. As for the Palestinians, I think Lebanon realizes how powerless they are, lot easier to have them under the thumb then do something for them no?
They had a vision for "Kurdistan" and it does appear to me, from what he says, that they will be able to negotiate a land for themselves.
I hope so, but if the land deal is going to come at the expense of the territorial integrity of neighbors like Turkey and Iran, it won't happen.
Again thank you my friend, for this wonderful review. I have to read this book as soon as I can find some time!

Vinita said...

I've always wondered what could be the motives of these young men and women who behave so extreme?

Madeleine said...

How awful to be brainwashed as soon as those children are born, never to have a life. It makes me very sad.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanj

I've always wanted to read the Fisk book but the size is daunting! I agree with all your points...we're going to have to wait and watch. Iran did have a revolution 40 years ago....who knows if it can happen again?

Yes, the Kurds have land issues with Turkey as well, you are correct to point that out...it's so complicated, but I really do want to wish them well.

Lotus Reads said...

@Vinita ~ Many of these young people are either uneducated or have been brainwashed at Madrasas to believe that their religion is under siege and that they have go out and commit Jihad. Also, many feel marginalized in their countries of residence and membership to these radical groups help them feel a sense of "belonging", a sense of "worthiness". Thanks so much for dropping by!

@Madeline ~ It is as you say. Only sincere political intervention, better education and solid recreational activities for these misguided youth can change the way things are now. Hope it happens in my lifetime!

xanindia said...

Jared was so brave. Its not easy to go visit and interview these people considering their place. But he still managed to do it in spite of the odds. Very impressive deed

Sam said...

Thanks for posting about it! I meet with my book club and reading this book.