The Middle East Will Never Be the Same Again: The Rise of the Millennial

by Arthur Brown

My society is full of contradictions: a society that dissolves the identity of the individual into the identity of the group, a society that is afraid of change, a society that praises freedom of expression but ultimately suppresses it. One learns to remain silent, to become a coward, to accept reality regardless of the discrepancies. One is taught that things in Lebanon will remain the way they are no matter how hard one tries to bring about change. There is no logic in our society. We must live up to the expectations of the family, the community, our religious sect, and political party – but I have no intention of doing so.[1]

With these words, Lebanese student “Yasmine” encapsulates all the salient energy and potential of the millennial generation. As Khalaf and Khalaf go on to suggest, ‘…youth can be subservient agents to repressive state authority or serve as radical agents in bringing about transformative change’.[2]

The term ‘youth’, particularly within the MENA context, is difficult to define. Commonly known as the millennial generation’, or ‘millennials’,[3] it is often associated with those aged between fifteen and the mid-thirties.[4] There is general agreement that ‘the youth’ have played a significant role in the Arab Uprisings and ongoing protests.

Global youth culture is pervasive across the MENA region and has distinctive features significant in any analysis of young people’s role in the region’s recent events. The millennial generation has been described as ‘confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change’.[5] They are also the most ‘connected’ generation of all time and the most educated. All of these factors provide them with the skills and attitude to play a significant and increasing role in the forming of societies. In essence, this is a generation striving to become creators rather than consumers.

Millennials have a strong leaning towards civic responsibility and involvement, both at local and global levels.[6] They have a more optimistic outlook than their forebears.  Millennials demonstrate confidence that may often be viewed as imperious, as well as a greater tolerance towards those traditionally deemed ‘other’ and a willingness to work with them ‘for the greater good’.

Youth use aspects of their subcultures as a means of enhancing what takes place in the streets and squares across the region. They write revolutionary songs and create short movies and satirical caricatures of the political elite. They then share them in ways that would have been inconceivable in previous years, not only because of a lack of technology but also due to the more risk-averse mind-set of the previous generation.

Due in part to technological limitations, previous generations tended to be private recipients of information and news. With the onset of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, etc., the millennial generation no longer just receives information and ideas, but interacts with them. In a real sense they have become creators rather than consumers – at least of information and ideas. This deeply-rooted need to create is what leads the millennial generation to step into their new role of seeking to rebuild their nations. The degree of their success will only be known in years to come.

And now what?

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, it is clear that the various youth movements have so far been unable to form credible institutions to govern.  Unlikely and disparate coalitions that were formed in the pre-revolutionary enthusiasm have proved unsustainable. In fact, those qualities that enabled millennial youth to be so effective during the uprisings – namely widespread, decentralised horizontal structures with massive grassroots participation – in some ways have become the very qualities that made it impossible for them to govern after the revolutions.

Despite the current disappointment of a generation, the reality is that much has changed. In many ways, a lid has been lifted which cannot and will not be replaced. While it is true that presently the millennial generation does not hold the reins of power, in the coming decades they will. They will have a better opportunity, as Cole suggests, to ‘shape politics directly, so we could well see an echo effect of the 2011 upheavals in future decades’.[7]

So what about the Church?

All of this has significant implications for the regional Church if it is to play its part in building the Kingdom of God in the region. As Salim Munayer asserts, the church cannot avoid involvement in the political dynamics of the contexts in which it is called to witness to the values of ‘justice, peace, equality and fellowship’.[8] In such we are called to be part of a healing process within our communities, seeking the well-being [peace] of those impacted by the realities on the ground.

At the same time, we cannot sit back and state that the role of the Church is purely a ‘spiritual’ one. Many within the millennial generation are disillusioned with social and religious institutions and their hierarchical structures. Many young people are leaving their churches, as they have not been welcomed in as creators and participants but rather as passive observers who need ‘entertaining’. And yet, there are signs of hope. As in previous generations, the faith, passion and creativity of young people have brought with them a prophetic dimension that becomes difficult to ignore. In Egypt, the ‘Count it Right’ movement is an example of the church engaging with youth and youth culture.

It strikes me that there are a number of things the church can do to not only ensure that the energy, passion and skills of young people are harnessed for good, but which also have the potential to transform the church into a dynamic agent of social and communal change. Firstly, the church needs to have a big vision for its role in society and invite young and old to join in with that vision. It needs to acknowledge the potential of young people’s faith and their desire to see faith as a catalyst for social and structural change, and not be fearful of the change that that may bring. It must then have a willingness not only to listen to the voices of the younger generations [including young children] but to enable them to become active participants in the decision making process – acknowledging that age [neither young or old] is a guarantor of wisdom.

The Church must then be willing to take risks with young people and step out towards the wider community to which it has been called to witness, harnessing creativity and trying new things – with the potential that such ventures may fail – but in the hope that new life will be created in and beyond the structures of the church. As young people become leaders in their faith communities it is my prayer that they will take what they learn into wider social and political life and continue the work of transforming nations.

____________________

[1] Roseanne Khalaf, ‘Idealistic and Indignant Young Lebanese’, in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Time of Risk, ed. by S. Khalaf and R.S. Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), pp. 162-175 (p. 166).

[2] Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (eds.) Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Time of Risk (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p. 11.

[3] Also known as Generation Y or ‘Gen.Y’ in contrast to their predecessors, Generation X.

[4] Jorgen Baek Simonsen, Youth and Youth Culture in the Contemporary Middle East: Proceedings of the Danish Institute in Damascus, (Langelandsgade: Aarhus University Press, 2005), p. 7.

[5] Pew Research Center: Social & Demographic Trends, ‘Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change’  http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2010/02/24/the-millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change [Accessed 21st April 2015].

[6] William Strauss and Neil Howe, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (New York: Vintage Original, 2000) p. 370.

[7] Juan Cole, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 270.

[8] Salim Munayer, ‘The Church’s Role in Political Engagement’ in MEATE Journal Vol.7 Issue 1, March 2014, pp. 22-28, (23).

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