The Arab baby boom

Idle youth in the Middle East provide easy recruits for extremist groups -- and there are more every year.

Published October 18, 2001 9:06PM (EDT)

A telling new slang term has sprung from North Africa in recent years: hittite. Playing off the Arabic word for wall (rather than the name of the ancient tribe that once conquered Mesopotamia), the phrase describes the ubiquitous throngs of young people who gather in towns and literally stand up against walls.

"It's basically crowds of youth with nowhere else to go," reports As'ad Abukhalil, associate professor of political science at Cal State Stanislaus. Although many among the congregated have college degrees, "They have no jobs, no prospects, and they are not happy," says Abukhalil. "That's what's happening today in the Middle East."

From North Africa to Central Asia, nations in the region are teeming with a youthful population and awash with idle hittites. The situation is most pronounced among the Arab states, where approximately 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20, compared to just 29 percent in America.

The Arab baby boom has created all sorts of new social and political tensions in the region as millions of underemployed youths search for a future. As the world discovered on Sept. 11, more of those youths have turned to radicalism.

"That's who the fundamentalists mobilize; it's a fertile ground," notes Abukhalil, author of the upcoming book, "Bin Laden and the Taliban: The New American War on Terrorism."

Birthrates in the Middle East are actually on the decline today, coming down from the highs of the oil-boom '80s. And Islam itself is open to family planning and more tolerant than Christianity, for instance, when it comes to abortions. (Polygamist marriages represent just 3 percent of husband-and-wife unions in the Middle East.)

With marked improvements in lowering the infant mortality rate in the region, more newborns are surviving to adulthood today. Yet many families have not adjusted to that new reality and continue to have large numbers of children, an accomplishment that's seen as a sign of virility and fertility for the parents.

Statistically, there remains a clear correlation in the region between high birthrates and low income. "The only cultural explanation for high fertility rates is poverty," notes Abukhalil, who teaches a course on family and marriage in the Muslim world.

At the same time of the public health improvements that decreased infant mortality, a revolution in public education was begun in the Middle East during the '60s and '70s, with government promising schooling, and even college degrees, to those who qualified. The revolutionary approach helped break down the region's class systems, but it also created an unprecedented number of college graduates -- who today discover their degrees are worth very little, as they jockey for low-paying jobs with the government.

The health and education reforms have left many Arab nations with a sizable borderline-middle-class population that's now hostile and frustrated, with few prospects for good jobs or adequate housing. (College graduates in Egypt must often wait until they're 40 or 50 years old before getting a decent apartment.)

That fact is reflected in the profile of the terrorist hijackers from Sept. 11. Most were in their 20s or early 30s, yet "none of them came from the depths of inner-city poverty. Most of them had solid educations," notes John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University.

"There are just too many people and too few jobs," reports Elizabeth Fernea, professor emeritus of English and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas. "There are very, very large groups of disaffected young people. "

Egypt alone has to create 815,000 new jobs annually to keep pace with baby boomers now coming into adulthood. But with very little foreign investment in the region, governments can offer their people three main employment options: the military, security forces or the bureaucracy. That explains why government payrolls in the Middle East are so bloated. (More than 60 percent of Kuwaitis are employed by the state, according to Abukhalil.)

When countries then approach the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in search of debt relief, they're told to first reduce the size of their government. Arab regimes are then faced with the dilemma of laying off tens of thousands of workers, who will only join the already swelling ranks of the discontent, or maintaining a bloated payroll and being rejected by the World Bank as the country's national debt continues to mushroom. (That's one reason why there is such hostility toward the World Bank among many in the Middle East.)

"The direct security consequence of the baby boom is that more and more of them move into marginal, radical operations unless they have something constructive to do in society," says Voll, who suggests some Middle Eastern governments have done a better job than others in giving young people a sense of purpose.

He notes there wasn't a single Iranian among the Sept. 11 hijackers. Part of that may simply have been because most Iranians are Shiite Muslims, while the terrorists were Sunnis. But more importantly, most of the hijackers came from the stifling societies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where unemployment is rampant and political participation is curbed.

In Iran, "the Islamic Republic has given people a better sense that they belong, that they have a meaningful task, to be part of the 'Agricultural Jihad,' for instance," says Voll. "Students in Iran are happy and excited about the president they helped install. Whereas the educated in Egypt or Saudi Arabia don't have that sense."

In Egypt, the conservative Muslim Brotherhood party is officially outlawed, and in Saudi Arabia political parties are banned, while freedoms of press, assembly and religion are curtailed.

"These people were brought up to believe they were the future. Then they realize they have no participation in their government," says Fernea. "They want to complain about their government but it's forbidden, so they take it out on us."

Religious objection to family planning is not a barrier when trying to curb the population explosion in the Middle East. That's because according to Islam, sex is an earthly pleasure to be enjoyed, not one restricted to procreation.

According to a recent survey published in the Alan Guttmacher Institute's International Family Planning Perspectives, 83 percent of Middle East Muslim men and women "believe that family planning is in keeping with the tenets of Islam." Perhaps more importantly, nearly 90 percent of Islamic religious leaders, the ones who dispense crucial advice to husbands and wives, also think it is in keeping with Islam. A Quranic verse about God not wishing to burden believers is often interpreted as a directive to families not to produce too many offspring.

The issue of population growth, though, remains a controversial one in the region when raised by outsiders. "There's so much fear and popular paranoia [in Arab states] that sometimes when Westerners talk about it, it's seen as a conspiracy to reduce the size of the Muslim people in the world," according to Abukhalil.

The dilemma is not going away. Baby boomers reaching adulthood today in the Middle East do not represent an isolated birth cycle. They are the tip of the iceberg, with even more young people growing up right behind them.

Forty percent of the population in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Algeria is under the age of 14. And in Qatar, Yemen and Palestine, half the entire population is under the age of 15.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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