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Opinion: The rise of the digital radicals - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Wise people, even the supporters of the so-called “Arab Spring,” admit that the current intellectual atmosphere, following these difficult years, is in a state of crisis on the level of ideas and practices, and that youth are both the fuel and victim of this crisis. Popular revolutions (or protests) wherever they were and whatever they led to, suffered from a crisis of intellectual leadership. Later the non-political elites withdrew from the limelight to avoid being branded as supporters of tyranny, leaving only the helpless political elites—which suffers from severe state of confusion due to the gap between them and the younger generation—on the field.

They say that numbers do not lie. According to the figures, the youth is the main victim of chaos. In spite of all the plaudits the younger generation receives for its use of technology, those with a broader view of the scene can see that the majority of the intellectual products of the young generation suffer from a severe a crisis of content. This is the case with the youth even though they are creative on the level of tools and means of distribution, as well as the digital sphere that has become a hotbed for half-baked, even false, subject matter.

If the total Arab population is approximately 400 million, those under the age of 25 make up approximately 70% of the total, of whom nearly 84% use the internet. Of that 84%, approximately 40% spend 5 hours on the internet per day. You can imagine that the content of what is being distributed online during this crisis is primarily of a radical nature. The period spanning the decline of the religious awakening, the post-9/11 era, and the acts of terrorism the region witnessed, marked the climax of the production of radical extremist discourse that replaced thought with Takfirism.

Then revolution came. These revolutions, which were full of youthful indignation at the miserable situation in many countries, replaced religious radicalism with intellectual ones that used the same tools and, surprisingly, the same sources. For example, the concepts of Allah’s rule and the Caliphate have been replaced by new and empty slogans such as social justice, democracy and political pluralism. These new concepts are being propagated by means as exclusionary and authoritarian as radical religious ones. The divisive Islamic issues of Al-Wala’ Wal Bara’ and governance have been replaced with civil but radical concepts such as peaceful protests and the staging of rallies, as well as legitimacy.

The issue of the youth should be high on our priorities in the near future, regardless of the results of the current political confusion and instability that makes decision makers unaware of the danger of radical extremism threatening the youth at any moment. True, the politicians should not carry the burden of the issue of the youth exclusively; however, realizing the importance of the issue will make it easier to launch initiatives sponsored by companies from the private sector, voluntary associations, cultural figures, as well as the moderate clerics whom the youth trust.

The moderate religious discourse remains absent at this stage and the political discourse of the youth emulates religious radicalism. We need to produce a moderate religious discourse rather than political awareness, particularly given that radical trends that used to be biased towards Al-Qaeda and terrorism have joined the political arena, further complicating and confusing things.

This is not limited to the youth in the countries that witnessed the Arab Spring revolutions, where the sense of patriotism and state sovereignty have declined. Youth outside the Arab-Spring countries, such as the Gulf states, are not better off. Apart from religious extremism and terrorism, many maladies can be observed in these countries. In fact two discourses can be spotted in the Gulf youth, both worrisome: first, a discourse of return to inflated concepts of the self and the clan, which is also riven by regional and sectarian biases. Second, a discourse that can be described as “intellectually radical” in terms of the concepts of state, authority and general political issues.

Putting any pessimism aside, a quick tour of new media platforms as well as the topics discussed by the youth shows that we are facing a danger posed by this type of idea. The recent announcement of the Saudi interior minister that many Al-Qaeda-linked elements are active on Twitter, is perhaps the clearest evidence of this crisis.