Young Arabs Reject ISIS, Worry About Lack Of Jobs, Poll Finds

NPR WHYY, Pennsylvania/April 12, 2016

By Greg Myre and Camila Domonoske

A broad survey of Arab youth in the Middle East and North Africa found that an overwhelming majority reject the Islamic State and its aims, though they see a lack of jobs and opportunities as major problems in their countries and leading recruiting tools for ISIS.

The Arab Youth survey included 3,500 face-to-face interviews with 18- to 24-year-olds in 16 Arab countries from Algeria to Yemen. (Syria was excluded, because of the conflict.) Half were men and half were women. The survey was conducted by American polling firm Penn Schoen Berland for ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm based in Dubai.

For the second year in a row, those surveyed cited the rise of the Islamic State as the greatest danger to the Middle East — half of the young people identified it as such — followed by the threat of terrorism. After that, Arab youths cited more prosaic and universal concerns that included unemployment, the rising cost of living and the lack of strong political leadership.

Seventy-eight percent of young people surveyed said they would not support ISIS even if the group were less violent; 76 percent believed the militant organization would not succeed in its stated goal of establishing an Islamic state.

The pollsters asked why young Arabs believed other young people were attracted to ISIS. The most popular response — a full quarter of respondents — was that young people don't understand, and couldn't explain it. Up next was a lack of jobs and opportunity, identified by 24 percent of the young people as a driving force for ISIS recruitment.

Religious explanations followed after — the belief that ISIS's interpretation of Islam is superior to other religions (18 percent) and sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites (17 percent). The rise of secular Western values in the region was cited by 15 percent.

The poll of Arab youth, which has been conducted nearly every year since 2008, provides a glimpse at shifting attitudes before and after the Arab Spring.

Five years ago, uprisings across the region ousted several autocratic rulers and raised the prospect of more open and dynamic societies after decades of stagnation. But chaos has ensued in many countries, including Libya, Syria and Yemen.

In 2010, before the uprisings, two-thirds of the surveyed youths said that living in a democracy was the single most important issue for them as they looked toward the future.

In 2012, in the aftermath of the upheaval, fair pay and homeownership were prioritized over democracy.

Today, a majority of young Arabs say stability is more important than democracy — although young people in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen are more divided on the issue.

For several years now, the annual survey has asked youths whether they think the Arab world is better off following the Arab Spring. Here, too, there has been a dramatic shift over time.

In 2012, 72 percent of young people said the Arab Spring made life better; today, that number stands at 36 percent.

Of the countries that had uprisings, Egypt is the only one where a majority of those polled said life was better afterward. Longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011; the Muslim Brotherhood took over after winning elections, but was then ousted by the military. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned under the current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has been widely criticized by human rights groups.

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