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Youth Should Be the Main Priority for Muslim Leaders

By Elshad Iskadarov

11 April 2016

As the 13th OIC (57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation) Heads of State Summit gets under way in Istanbul this week, it is important to remember that whilst many Muslim countries are known for oil and gas, this is not, however, their most valuable resource, and it is not the only sector that needs to be invested in. Our youth will last longer than our oil reserves, and their worth is impervious to price fluctuations and market forces.

Investment in youth is now a top priority for Muslim countries, because if we do not invest in our young people, someone else will – this is a free market. It is no coincidence that the majority of Daesh recruits are between the ages of 15 and 25. This generation of Muslims has been exposed, perhaps more than any other, to the twin external and internal dangers of extremism and sectarianism and this is exacerbated by challenges around education, employment and developing a sense of active citizenship.

This is why the Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation (an OIC affiliated international institution headquartered in Istanbul) have convened a youth summit not just to coincide with, but to be an official part of the 13th Islamic Summit in Istanbul this week, which convenes Heads of State and official delegations from across the OIC’s 57 member states. More broadly, it is also why the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, under the leadership of its Secretary General – Iyad Ameen Madani, has made youth engagement in the Islamic world one of the organisation’s key priorities.

The main objective of this first-ever Young Leaders Summit (#OIC which will gather some 200 young leaders across 57 Muslim-majority countries) will be to discuss a comprehensive Youth Strategy. Recommendations reflecting different aspects of this strategy are to be tabled in the agenda of the heads of states for decision-making.

The Middle East must create 80 million new jobs over the next fifteen years, just to keep pace with population growth, i.e. just to maintain the status quo

Once adopted this strategy will encompass various goals to be reached by Muslim countries in order to turn demographic challenges into opportunities which Muslim countries and the world at large can benefit from. In addition to young community leaders, the summit, will also feature Ministers of youth, a Nobel peace winner and extensive body of experts who will work together to come up with solutions throughout this week.

Young people constitute about a third of the population of most member states of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, and growth rates for this age group are higher than in demographic segment. This “youth bulge” across the Muslim world means that opportunities are limited: Michelle Gavin of the CFR stated recently that this “lowers the opportunity cost” of joining an armed movement. It is our job to increase the opportunity cost.

Historically, young disenfranchised people have often been drawn to new and sometimes radical ideas to challenge older forms of authority, leading to political instability. This can be seen throughout history and across cultures, from the French revolution to Marxist insurrections in Latin America, to Arab Spring uprisings. This has been thoroughly documented by the Political Scientist Jack A. Goldstone, a consultant to USAID.

'High Risk'

It is not surprising that Population Action International rates many Muslim countries as “high risk” or “very high risk” when surveying the youthfulness of their populations, and the potential political effects of this challenge. As the recent outcome of Arab Spring demonstrated however those disenfranchised groups are not necessarily better off in the result of “revolution” which in countries like Libya and Syria has led to collapse of state structure and torn apart the very fabrics of society.

To overcome such dangerous path several youth related reforms are urgently needed. Job creation is particularly important in Muslim countries, where youth unemployment stands at 15.6 percent compared to the global average of 12.6 percent – that’s almost a quarter higher. In the Arab world, 50 percent of the unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. The Middle East must create 80 million new jobs over the next fifteen years, just to keep pace with population growth, i.e. just to maintain the status quo. However, it is not good enough to stand still – we must move forward. The challenge is huge, but not insurmountable.

Unfortunately, a typical young Muslim’s education prospects do not fare much better than his or her job prospects. There are only two universities from the Muslim world - which constitutes a quarter of the global population - in the top 200 universities in the world. In order to help closing this quality/quantity gap the Youth Summit will not just propose to upgrade the level of 20 best OIC universities into the world 200 but also establish a network of youth centres which serve as hubs for skills development and “school to job transition” for hundreds of thousands of young people.

Good practice of utilizing cost efficiency of such centres of informal education that supplement formal ones as well as models of governmental programmes of funding “youth training projects” being implemented lately in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Malaysia will be presented at the Summit for study and prospective multiplication.

Education, as well as economic and political empowerment goes hand in hand. Utilizing social media to create a positive active citizenship and sense of civic pride is essential. The government of Malaysia estimates that 75 percent of Daesh recruits are recruited online. If the only form of “active citizenship” available online is that of Daesh, then they will win. We must provide an alternative.

What is the silver bullet that can create education, employment and a sense of online social empowerment? I believe that investment in IT entrepreneurship is one of the crucial answers. This is a huge opportunity: there is not a single Muslim country in the top 30 of the IT Industry Competitiveness Index (66 countries were surveyed, so essentially the top half of the table is non-Muslim). Many of the higher ranking countries in the Index are Central European states such as Poland and Estonia who have utilised IT investment to navigate complex social and political challenges somewhat similar to those facing Muslim countries now.

This is why next month ICYF-DC (Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation) have also co-organised the 2nd Kazan OIC Youth Entrepreneurship forum, where young IT entrepreneurs from across the Muslim world will utilize the capacity of newly completed high-tech Innopolis Compound and get connected with international investors and world-renowned tech experts.

The Forum will also connect these bright young minds with their colleagues not just from 57 OIC countries expertise of their same-ages from the West. The major responsibility to take IT development to the next level is with top 10 OIC MS which command almost 80 percent of OIC GDP and which should take a lead in transforming wealth acquired from natural resources into high –tech education and research opportunities for the next generation.

If you doubt the transformational potential of IT investment, consider that Indian intelligence agencies estimate that there may be at most 23 Indian Daesh recruits - from a population of 172 million Indian Muslims. That is still 23 recruits too many, but compares very favourably with many other countries. This also demonstrates that supporting developmental programmes for Muslim youth should be in priority list also for non-OIC countries with considerable Muslim minority communities.

When Muslim youth have a choice between false martyrdom in Syria or becoming live bomb in Brussels or Ankara and a high-tech start-up in Bangalore, I am not surprised that they choose the latter. The only way to increase the “opportunity cost” is to increase the opportunity. How many Bangalore’s can the Muslim world build? The answer will to some extend be dependent on how quickly the Summit recommended OIC Youth Strategy will be adopted and how effectively it will be implemented.

Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov is President of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum, an OIC affiliated international institution headquartered in Istanbul with organizational membership in 45 Muslims majority countries. He is also a career diplomat of Azerbaijan who has served various governmental postings including at the United Nations.