A few weeks ago, I was watching a TV programme on one of the Islamic channels. The guests, two gentlemen and a lady in their twenties, were European youth from France who had converted to Islam. What captured my attention most is the fact that these young people were explaining their involvement in charity organisations. They were full of commitment and energy, collecting money and clothes and distributing hot food and warm clothes to the homeless at nightin the streets of Paris. Obviously, they were not concerned whether the recipients of this help were Muslims or not; all humans are equal when it comes to the basic necessities of life namely, a shelter, food, and clothes.
One of the gentlemen was actively involved in translating quality brochures about Islam from English to French. The brochures had been judged excellent from the impact they had had in the USA. He was also involved in the aforementioned humanitarian activity as well as through participationat exhibits about Islam and collection of charity money. The second gentlemen and the lady were also involved in collecting charity money, digging up wells and building mosques in Africa.
A common characteristic of the three people was their optimism. They were all driven by a feeling that they can change so many things around them bringing comfort to homeless people, helping needy people in Africa with lasting infrastructure that can make their lives easier and better, and calling to the way of Islam through knowledge and wisdom.
A very encouraging piece of news reported that in Britain Muslims are among the most generous givers of donations to charity. The average Muslim gave £371 while the average Jew, Roman Catholic and atheist gave, respectively, £270, £178 and £116. Other Christians gave slightly less than £178.
The TV programme brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of what I had seen during my stay in the USA, the UK, and Norway. I could not prevent the comparison between these young Muslims, who fairly recently converted to Islam, and the youth I have been seeing around me at the university and everywhere in Algeria and some other Arab countries.
Algerian Muslim Youth
For the last few years, I have particularly been attentive to the attitude of the youth in Algeria. I have been analysing them on the streets, in the market places, and in football stadiums as well as at my university. I use every opportunity to challenge their thoughts so they let their beliefs come to the surface. My overall conclusion is that our youth have lost the spirit! Whereas in the late 1970s and during the 1980s we used to dream of a better tomorrow and were convinced that the tomorrow we were dreaming of was coming near, our youth today seem to have lost hope altogether! This is the worst thing that can happen to a nation. It is true that some (relatively very few though) are active, e.g. in some scientific clubs, and organising various activities. The overall attitude however is of people who have “given up the fight”… for a better tomorrow.
Let me not be misunderstood though! We have some very bright youth, especially students at USTHB since this is the university I know best. They are intelligent and full of ideas whenever we challenge them to show what they are capable of. The problem is rather psychological. This also has a negative impact on their performance in their studies. Too small a proportion of students stretches itself to be always on top of things, revising their lectures, solving problems, doing further explorationsvia the wealth of knowledge and experience available on the Internet, using any free time they have on innovation (instead of chatting on social networks), etc.
If we talk about youth more generally in Algeria, we find the situation really alarming. Agood proportion of these who are not in high school or at the university see their present and future as bleak. The opportunities of reasonable (official) jobs are so scarce that they have fallen prey to informal, often illegal, ways of owning their living. Added to this, we can mention the projects launched by the government to “help” the youth, projects that distribute loads of money to unprepared youth who receive almost no coaching programmes to get the best results and return on investment. This is so much so that this “funding” of youth projects are widely seen as means of “buying social peace” by a government that has a lot of money at its disposal and has not dome much in terms of job creation.
Youth vs. Youth
Drawing a parallel between the youth in the West and those in Algeria, acouple of questionsimmediately come to one’s mind:
- Why are the Muslim youth in the West involved in various social, cultural, and even political activities, and are positive and effective in their involvement?
- Why does the youth in Algeria seem to have given up believing in ideals?
These questions immediately take us back to MalekBennabi’s discussion of the topics of “Culture” and “Civilisation”. He made the parallel between the effectiveness of the Western (European) culture and that of the Islamic world (and the “third world” more generally, for that matter). I would like to translate his broad principles in some specific points which I see as fundamental in giving western youth – and Muslims there as a special case – the involvement and effectiveness we are discussing here, and which are preventing those in Algeria from being positive and constructive.
The first and fundamental aspect is freedom and rights. In the West, the youth grow up in an atmosphere of political freedom and legal rights. A citizen knows what falls within his/her rights and what does not. Once this is understood – very early on in their upbringing and educational system – they have no fear of being persecuted or unjustly prosecuted for any legal activities judged “unacceptable” by whatever authority. This very fact of knowing ones rights and duties is fundamental in giving total reassurance to the citizens that they can get involved in any legal activity; it all boils down then to their own convictions. Even more, the state has the duty and will protect the citizen’s right to get involved in any legal activity.
A second principle which is rooted inthat of freedom and rights as well as other educational components is self-confidence. A child in the West grows up in a family environment first, and then educational and social environments, that nurture confidence in him/her. One feels that all these different sources synergise to build this self-confidence in a youngster. Even the excess of freedom, and the social problems it has generated in the West, comes from the fact that a youngster in the Wes eventually feels Free and Confident to do whatever pleases him/her. In our country, all the signals we send to our youth, from their very young age, are negative and tend to hinder their sense of experimentation and learning through trial and error. We either block any initiative, sense of discovery and innovation in our children, or give themno attention at all which eventually leads them straight onto the street and into all kinds of social problems such as aggressiveness, violence anddrugs.
Yet another factor is that the youth in the West are also brought up to be independent. Very quickly, say around the age of 18, the youth become self-dependent. They have to take care of themselves, paying for their studies and managing their own lives. Again, this is not all positive since we, most of the time, see weaker family and social bonds in the West compared to our country. I am therefore not calling here for throwing our youth to the street once they reach 18, but to a rather more rational attitude whereby we help them learn how to be gradually independent while nurturing in them the Islamic values of family links, care for parents and next-of-kin, relationships with neighbours, etc.
The measured freedom, confidence and independence that is given to the youth in the West overall yields good results in terms of entrepreneurship. Through the confidence they acquire during their education, added to the knowledge and skills they learn, the youth in the West often develop a spirit of entrepreneurship. They can try new ideas, look for ways of sponsoring these ideas, and even not be afraid of giving up their studies at times when their ideas start bearing fruits.
Obviously, one may find some other factors that can contribute to cultivating involvement and effectiveness among Western youth, but I try to highlight in this articlethe very key ones as I see them. I will thus add a last, but definitely not least, factor: economic opportunities. We cannot leave aside the fact that Western economies offer many job opportunities for all skills and tastes. This contributes to giving feelings of security to the youth. Students know that, despite the existing unemployment crises, they have good chances upon graduation that they can get various opportunities of getting suitable or reasonable jobs. This is far from being the case in Algeria. Relevant job opportunities are scarce and the relatively few that exist often require interventions and acquaintances. This has a very negative impact on the youth’s motivation, whether they are highly educated or not.
So what can be done?
What is needed on the short term is to work on the mentalities and psychology of our young people, building their self-confidence, coaching them into successful ideas (and even innovative start-ups), and helping them be more constructive in the society at large.
On the middle- to long-term scales, we need to see a more thriving economic sector that creates jobs which require qualified to highly-skilled people. We need to see an educational system that develops the concepts of freedom, rights, and independence, as well as inquisitive and entrepreneurial minds into our children and youth. We finally need a state that protects and even encourages the youth to get involved in all kinds of social, educational, sports, and even political activities for, through this attitude only, will our youth feel they have a contract to fulfil towards their society and their country.
I will not conclude this article without reminding the readers, especially the younger ones, of Imam IbnBadis’ eternal poem:
O youth, indeed, you are our hope…
With you the dawn, now has come near
Take from this life all its weapons…
And fight your battles; be not in fear!
Ahmed Guessoum is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Science and Technology HouariBoumediene (USTHB) in Algiers. (www.usthb.dz )
 Muslims ‘are Britain’s top charitygivers’, The Times, 20 July 2013.
 The attentive reader may mention here that this is not necessarily the case in the West, giving as an example the way the US dealt with the communists especially during the cold war. Letting aside that dark side of the American history, one has to admit that the West does not hinder the legal activities of a group just because this group is opposed to the government’s vision, programmes, corruption, or whatever.
The cases of Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zimmerman (Facebook), SergeyBrin& Larry Page (Google) for instance are shining examples here.
“Weapons” is metaphorical here; it refers to confidence, knowledge, strength, etc.