An Arabism cookbook: Empowering Arab youth in turbulent times

We can’t stop conflicts from occurring, but we can come together to mitigate their negative effects.

Conflicts in the Arab world tend to fit with what Edward Azar calls "protracted social conflicts" - economic and technological underdevelopment, and un-integrated social and political systems [EPA]

Good news is no news, and bad news is what everyone is looking for. Among all the media coverage about the “Muslim rage” – the subway ads, the killing and the bombings – it is very difficult to find good news related to the Arab world. But in the diaspora, Arab youth are looking to change that. 

The Arab Development Initiative (ADI) held its second annual summit “Envision Arabia 2012”, from October 6 to 8, in New York City. This is a student-led initiative, started as a project by the Arab Students Association at McGill University, that aims to empower Arab youth, to connect them and organise them to develop projects targeted to address issues in the Arab world. 

The summit, organised as an “unconference” or participant-driven meeting, facilitates participants to propose ideas, and helps them transform these ideas into feasible projects. This year more than 300 people participated: 50 per cent were female, and almost half of them were under age 22. 

The organisers of the initiative felt that this year, instead of organising lectures and workshops, they needed to move to the action phase. This led to “Sharek“, an online platform where participants could submit projects for review and find collaborators. 

The projects were organised under six themes: Economic Development, Education, Society and Culture, Law and Human Rights, Health and Well-being, and Science and Technology. Thirty two of 50 proposed projects were then selected for the summit. Attendees, called “delegates”, signed up for projects and worked together to create posters and devise presentations to be given at the end of the conference. 

“A person who engages in a new behaviour without planning or foreseeing the results is not engaging in a premeditated action but simply responding to an impulse.”

A poster fair was organised and participants were given fake money to invest in the projects after hearing each proposal. Based on the amount of money invested, two projects were selected as winners, and ADI will provide technical support and fundraising to bring them to fruition. 

Actions and subsequent effects

Why is this an important event? And what is the relation between this initiative and the current situation in the Arab world? The current movement that is sweeping the region is empowering people and demonstrating to them the link between their actions and subsequent effects. This link had not been seen in the political realm for some time. 

For years, generations became habituated to what in psychology is known as “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is the total acceptance of a given condition: When someone is repeatedly exposed to shocks with no ability to resist or escape, they become docile and accepting. Should an exit from the shocks subsequently be provided, the opportunity to escape will not be taken. 

Whether you were an Arab youth growing up in the Arab world or in the diaspora, repeated exposure to situations in the Arab world where actions had no effect with respect to the problems made these youth unlikely to see solutions, even when they existed, for they were operating in a learned helplessness mentality. Our only solution out of this mentality is to foster “agency”. 

Agency is the capacity, condition, or state of acting, or of exerting power. An act of agency is one that has an outcome that the individual has in whole or part foreseen.

In the psychological literature, agency is comprised of three steps: Foresight, choice and self-initiated action

“Foresight” refers to the planning phase of engaging in a novel activity before the initiation of the act itself. The foreseeing applies as much to the process as to the result of the behaviour. Complicated acts that require the greatest agency require envisioning the process and being able to establish a positive mental image of the process and the results of one’s imagined actions. A person who engages in a new behaviour without planning or foreseeing the results is not engaging in a premeditated action but simply responding to an impulse.  

The experience of choice involves behaviour selected by an individual. When one is coerced to do something, the set of brain mechanisms engaged is entirely different from those activated when someone choses the same behaviour. Learned helplessness eliminates the experience of choice. 

Self-initiated action is an action carried out through one’s own effort. In the case of learned helplessness described above, if the shocks were stopped without any input on the part of the victim, the latter would not experience agency, because he had not played any part in the cessation. While the victim experiences relief, the learned helplessness remains. Thus even doing good things for people may not be the best way to improve their functioning; agency and empowerment only come as a result of effort by individuals. 

ADI conducted annual summit “Envision Arabia 2012” , from October 6 to 8, in New York City 

Revival of the Arabic identity

ADI fosters the three steps of agency concurrently. The ADI’s initiative allows these young people to experience agency by helping them to envision a different “Arabia” – to envision a project with a plan; to choose the project one will participate in; to choose the project to promote and the method that will make the project a reality; and to take the necessary first steps toward actualising the project. 

When someone is unable to foresee results, or play an active role in the choosing process, and initiate the action independently or co-operatively, he or she will not develop this sense of agency. Generations have been told what to do and not to do, and the time has come to reverse this. Fostering the sense of agency in these young minds creates a very precious resource and unlocks the vast, currently untapped potential which the Arab youth embody. 

Questions of Arabic identity, regional interests and affiliations, which dominated the conversations of earlier generations, are playing out differently for this generation.

The revival of the Arabic identity, not as a top down mandate but through a grassroots movement, creates a broader frame among participants who don’t speak one language – many of them were not born in the Arab world, and some of them have never even been to the region – but only share a mix of heritages and cultures. They embrace Arabism in this larger context in order to share their interest in the Arab world and connect with one another. 

The liaison of the ADI in New York City responsible for the meeting’s logistics is an American who is passionate about the Arab world, while the co-director of the conference is a Canadian from Hispanic origins. The leader of a project to help Syrian refugees is a Lebanese; another project, helping internally displaced people in Syria, is co-led by a Syrian American and a Canadian. An energy project in Egypt using solar power to heat water involved a coalition of various nationalities, and the same could be said about many other projects. 

With problems and issues very different from the ones of the previous generation, this generation is trailblazing its way forward, not “waiting”, but becoming masters of their destinies and to help in developing the new Arab world. 

And yet, given the armed conflicts and political unrest in the Arab world right now, don’t we have to deal with these crises before attending to fostering agency and social networks? I believe we can’t wait for the people with arms to battle it out, or powerful political parties to sort out their influences; we need to activate civil society and agency in Arab youth now. 

Protracted social conflicts

Conflicts in the Arab world tend to fit with what Edward Azar calls “protracted social conflicts”. Protracted social conflicts have typical characteristics that account for their prolonged and enduring nature: Economic and technological underdevelopment, and un-integrated social and political systems. These do not lend themselves to simple solutions: Distributive injustice, for example, requires the elimination or substantial modification of extreme economic and social disparities in levels of political privilege and opportunity. 

Any “solutions” that do not come to grips with these conditions are temporary, and must rest on law enforcement, threat, or power control by the more powerful party to the conflict, so conflict is likely to erupt again as soon as there is any change in the balance of power, leadership, or some other significant eco-political condition. 

Azar warns us: “Agreements that come out of negotiations that may give certain advantages to elites, but do not touch upon the underlying structural issues in the conflict, do not last.” 

Therefore, we are led to the hypothesis that the source of protracted social conflict is the denial of those elements required for the development of all people and societies, and whose pursuit is a compelling need in all: Security, social recognition of distinctive identity, and effective participation in the processes that determine conditions of security and identity, among others. In other words, those pursuits in which people continuously strive to maximise their agency and increase their participation in order to change their structural conditions. 

ADI provides a unique model to help people foster their agency and change these structural conditions. This model can be implemented by other communities as well. What differentiates this initiative from other similar projects is that the entire group, not discrete, small units, works together, following a cyclical path: Create ideas, execute designs, make presentations and evaluations, and provide feedback. 

It uses the collective force of the group to create something greater than a collection of individuals. While we can’t stop conflicts from occurring, we can organise in order to mitigate their negative effects, by aiding a family sleeping outside in the cold because their home was destroyed, tutoring children who are missing school, or providing logistical help to people in need. 

We already see many excellent initiatives in the Arab world that ought to be supported, formalised and extended. There should be an Envision Arabia summit in every large city where people come together, study their specific needs, propose solutions and execute them. Apathy, learned helplessness and inactivity are our worst enemies, and we have an opportunity to change this that should be seized. 

‘Parkour’ the Arab world

Activating the youth and fostering civil society can’t wait for the crises to pass, for these guarantee that after the dust settles there will be people who have initiative and can perform the hard work of development. 

Companies and foundations looking to invest in the future of the Arab youth should look no further than the 32 ambitious projects on the Sharek platform, which are waiting for prime time, with 300 brilliant minds behind them. 

The Arab world is in deep need for: Philantherapy (a project to encourage volunteering in citizens), SAHEM (Society of Activists for Human Empowerment), Disabilities Online Platform, E-Government, ALWANE Coalition: Active Leaders For Women’s Advancement in the Near East, Refugees and football initiative, Middle Eastern Professors in the Diaspora, Slum Development , YALLA (Youth Academy for Leadership, Learning, and Advancement), Solar Powered Water Heaters for Sustainable Development,Youth Initiative for Scientific Research, Forsa: Online Interactive Platform Providing Guidance and Information for Arab Students, Computer and Internet education for disadvantaged women, and many more. 

No one pretends that it will be easy; one of the posters for the ADI conference said “Parkour the Arab world”. For people unfamiliar with the term, “Parkour” is one of the most difficult and dangerous sports, where the participants “move along a route, typically in a city, trying to get around or through various obstacles in the quickest, most efficient manner possible, as by jumping, climbing, or running”. 

If you think about it, the committee organised the conference in New York from its base in Montreal; the participants who came from all over the US, Canada, and even Europe, in order to participate in envisioning a better future for the Arab world; and the ordinary youth in many Arab cities who are shaping their future, are all Parkour professionals. 

[Disclosure: The writer is not affiliated with the Arab Development Initiative.]

Andres Barkil-Oteo is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. His interests lay in the intersection between mental health, healthcare systems and education.