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Saving the young for last: youth panel at Al Jazeera forum

The final session of the Al Jazeera forum is “Listen! Voice of Youth” – a showcase for some younger student leaders and bloggers from around the region, as well as from South Africa. Almost all the panelists complained about the time of the session, arguing that a slot after lunch more or less guarantees a half-full room.

Shaden Abdul Rahman, a Palestinian blogger based in the UAE (and Global Voices contributor), started her remarks with some statistics: more than half of the Arab world is people under 25 years old. Statistics at Jerusalem University indicate widespread Internet usage – 83% say they recieve information from the internet, 80% use the Internet 3-10 times a week. Shaden believes that media needs to take the opinion and point of view of the youth more seriously, especially on critical issues like Iraq and Palestine. The Arab world doesn’t take Arab youth seriously enough – there’s more than 20 channels for entertainment and fashion, but not even one channel to address youth issues and allow youth to engage with problems of the Arab world.

Egyptian student leader, Muhammed Ghozlan, echoed the concern about the surfeit of entertainment channels – he argues that young people are “prisoners”, pinned between these entertainment channels on one side and government channels on the other side. “There’s nothing to be afraid of from the youth” – governments shouldn’t be afraid of youths blogging and running websites, from street theatre (which is common in Egypt). No one is adopting and encouraging these forms of youth expression – youth need our own media, a channel of our own.

Joslyn Massad is an Arab American, who introduces herself as a young woman who’s proud of her culture, proud of her country, but not proud of ignorance in the United States. Ignorance comes from the media, and creates misconceptions of the Arab world and Arab Americans. We expect media to build bridges between the US and the Arab world, and they’re failing to do this. She tells a story about growing up on Disney films, watching Alladin, and wanting to be the character Jasmine. She recites some of the lyrics from a song: “They cut off your hand if they don’t like your face; it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” American culture is so powerful, it can turn a proud Arab American into someone who sings hateful lyrics like this. She explains that her parents watch Fox News and were “wary of their little girl attending a confernce sponsored by terrorists.” This demonstrates the power of media – if it can take the minds of people whose roots go back to the Arab world and convince them that Arabs are terrorists, what else can it do? She argues that more Arabs and muslims to become filmmakers, documentarians, journalsits to work against these stereotypes.

Jamal Al Shayyal, a British student activist, talks about Muslim youth culture in Britain, a subject of major interest after the July 7th bombings. The attacks were carried out by four British-born Muslim youth – many Britons have been asking themselves “How can youths born in multicultural Britain strap explosives to themselves?” An academic report on Muslim youth in Britain indicates that 85% thought media was critical to shaping opinions, and 90% thought that the media portrayed a negative portrait of Islam. He’s especially concerned that older people are frequent commentators on youth issues. “You don’t get a cricket player to comment on a football match.” Quoting Nelson Mandela – “It sometimes falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation,” Jamal believes that change in the Muslim world is likely to come from second and third generation Muslims outside the Middle East, who will use their freedom to help change the media and society.

Vuyiswa Tulelo is the commissioner of the National Youth Commission in South Africa. She believes that youth all over the world – regardless of race, belief, creed – have common issues, but that these issues need to be better integrated into wider discussions of social change. Otherwise, all youth activists “age out” – in five years, they’re not youth any more and aren’t considered valid activists on youth issues. Vuyiswa is concerned that South African youth are being westernized away from their roots, pronouncing their names in an accent appropriate to television presenters, not in the way their parents taught them to pronounce them. She’s concerned that youth are presented as irresponsible and careless, as substance abusers, not as people engaged in volunteerism and social change.

Khaled, a young Qatari, rounds out the panel – he wasn’t listed in the program, so I regret I don’t have his surname. He’s concerned that media isn’t creating programming that helps educate the youth. He wants to see media that has “constant values”, values useful to the country where someone is growing up, whether that’s Qatar or South Africa. Media with values doesn’t neccesarily mean religious or cultural programming – it could be entertainment or sports, but needs to reflect cultural values. Intellectual programs on networks like Al Jazeera don’t engage the youth sufficiently – they need to be less rigid, more dynamic and able to engage a younger generation.

A young Al-Jazeera staffer offered a limited apology for the timing for the panel and mentioned that Al-Jazeera is cognisant of its problems in reaching youth. He announced an Al Jazeera blog, designed to be more interactive and help Jazeera reach this younger generation of viewers. (No word yet on the address – I’ll try to post that when it becomes available.)

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