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A nation must think before it acts.
The Arabic-speaking world, extending from Morocco in the east to Oman in the west, is changing rapidly. The Arab Spring was but the first chapter of this change. Despite ongoing violence in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, in much of the Arab world the most powerful force for change is nonviolent activism. Millions of people are pursuing creative, peaceful ways to effect political change, even as both extremists and dictators, continue to assert their power using their proven means: violence.
Take the example of Aramram, a Jordanian WebTV platform. Its videos provide unprecedented civic education for young Jordanians, in easy-to-follow language. It also provides videos on economic issues. In one of their programs called, “209 King Hussein Street,” named after the address of the Parliament building, they discuss every bill proposed or passed by the members of the parliament, acting as a Jordanian C-SPAN. While this doesn’t raise an eyebrow in America, for a country where most votes are cast to support one’s tribe or religious affiliation, this kind of civic education aims at fundamentally changing voting patterns and creating, for the first time, a state-based citizen, rather than a tribal citizen, with expectations of an accountable government. Aramram’s productions meet a hunger for such knowledge as their videos have been viewed millions of people and shared by hundreds of thousands. For a small country like Jordan, that is a significant percentage of the country.
Or take the example of Sami al-Hourani, a brilliant Jordanian medical doctor who decided to leave a fellowship at Stanford University to dedicate his time to a platform he created to help his fellow young men and women find opportunities around the world for training and fellowships. His website, Fursa, Arabic for opportunity, receives more than ten thousand visitors a day. His Facebook page is even more popular. He is not stopping there. Among other initiatives he created is Fadfid, which means vent in Arabic. He distributed blank pieces of white paper to young men and women in Jordan and asked them to list their grievances. He then translated these into charts and data, an effortless task for someone who started coding in seventh grade. His goal is to find creative solutions for these grievances, as he did with Fursa.
Like many of his peers who are providing a much-needed service, al-Hourani’s company is severely lacking in funding. He told the author on a recent trip to Amman that if things do not change for him in a year, he would have to go back to Stanford. The hundreds of thousands who rely on his service to obtain professional opportunities would join the millions of unemployed young men and women in the Middle East and North Africa region who constitute the highest regional unemployment in the world. Perhaps some would consider joining violent groups that promise change more forcefully. Although “CVE”, or countering violent extremism, is not their primary purpose, civic-minded innovators like Sami al-Hourani are providing services that meet the needs of the vast numbers of educated, unemployed Arab youth. Without an alternative, these young people are vulnerable to the lure of extremism. Don’t people like Sami al-Hourani deserve some of the vast funds the west is pouring into the Arab world in the effort to promote stability and counter violent extremism?
Stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi is another example of creativity and influence. Born and raised in, arguably, the most conservative country on earth, Saudi Arabia, Fahad is one of tens of thousands of Saudis who are also Western educated. To meet the needs of his fellow young Saudis for candid debates on the challenges they are facing, Fahad created political satire shows aimed at raising awareness among his peers. His videos went viral on YouTube, attracting millions of followers. In fact, his YouTube channel competes, and even surpasses at times, the viewership of well-financed conventional satellite television stations, which are mostly government owned, and often push a more conservative agenda. In his satire, he mocked political, social and even religious norms. For example in one episode, which was watched by over five and a half million viewers, he tackled the negative impact of the kingdom’s internal conservative rules and its severe gender segregation policies.
The Arabic speaking world has thousands of young men and women who are empowering their peers to be pro-active citizens, and to push for meaningful change through peaceful means. In age of violence and disruption, these young innovators are providing the “ammunition” through the peaceful means of information, knowledge, and awareness to bring about the essential transformation of the Middle East into a region of opportunity and justice. The question is, when will policy makers in the US and the rest of Western world pay attention to these change agents who are impacting millions of their peers?
This blog post is drawn from a presentation the author made at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar entitled “Arts, Culture, and the Media in the Contemporary Middle East: Competitive Soft Power and Engagement in the Arab World” held in Washington, DC on October 4, 2016.