Any regular readers of my blog have probably noticed that Jared Cohen’s Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East has been displayed on my sidebar with a “to read” tag for months. After much procrastination I finally picked it up the other day and started reading it. Not only did I enjoy it, but with recent events in Egypt showing us the newly awakening power of the region’s large population of dissatisfied and politically inspired young people, I believe Cohen’s book is incredibly timely and relevant.
Published in late 2007, it chronicles the adventures of twenty-something US State Department employee and Stanford grad Jared Cohen as he engages youth across the Middle East as part of a project to better understand their attitudes towards America, politics, democracy and other related topics. While being largely up front and honest about being an “American Jew” to those he encounters, Cohen begins his Middle East odyssey in Iran; (where, based on Cohen’s experience most of the nation’s youth admire America and all things American while at the same time loathing the ruling theocracy, completely opposite of the country’s leadership); moving to Lebanon, (its incredibly religious diverse population experiencing a heady rush of democratic fervor made possible by the recent departure of the occupying Syrian military); northeast to Syria, (the only nation in the Middle East where an overwhelming Sunni population is ruled by a small Shia sect called the Alawi); east to Iraqi Kurdistan, (which after decades of oppression and genocide a largely pro-American and even pro-Israeli population is so happy to build a modern independent Kurdistan that it’s probably the one of the few places in the Middle East that young people are flocking to and not from) and lastly a brief and accidental sojourn into northern Iraq, (an area plagued by armed conflict, danger and insurgents waiting to kidnap unsuspecting Americans for financial gain or worse).
While Cohen does provide an admirable job providing historical information to help put things in a larger context, his greatest gift is his ability to put a human face on the region’s young people, especially their seemingly unIslamic social activities of partying, romancing and drinking. Even in Iran, purported to be one of the most puritanical nations on earth, Cohen attends underground house parties which flow with bootleg alcohol while provocatively dressed young people bump and grind to Western hip-hop. In Beirut, even young Hezbollah members might rave at dance clubs ’til 6 AM where cross-confessional one night stands are almost de rigueur. Through these encounters and others Cohen learns that most Middle East youth, besides sharing their Western counterparts’ desire for the pleasures of the flesh, simply want a better education, a promising career and freedom from political and religious oppression. In short, nothing radical, just the same freedom and opportunities we enjoy in the West.
But there is another side of the coin and Cohen does encounter young Hezbollah zealots, Palestinian militants, pro-government Iranians youth and even at the book’s end cynical and surly American soldiers, (but some kind and hospitable ones too). He also meets gracious desert-dwelling Bedouins with satellite TV service receiving over 900 channels and an anti-American taxi driver who in all likelihood was a former Iraqi insurgent.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote this week in a recent editorial, the protests in Egypt have much to do with the region’s youth feeling ripped-off and held back when confronted with the progress of young people in other parts of the world- youth who are not living under corrupt, oppressive and unresponsive regimes. With recent events in Egypt have we reached the tipping point of a larger movement for democracy throughout the region? If so, Cohen’s book should be required reading for all of us.