Youth Movements

views updated May 17 2018


Youth typically refers to the ages fifteen to twenty-four or eleven to twenty-nine. Analysts view youths as intellectually idealistic, psychologically impatient, practically inexperienced, socially liberal, and politically radical. Since they often lack a socially defined position in society, they tend to demand more far-reaching changes in society than their elders. Youth movements also bear these characteristics.

Although youth movements are modern phenomena, youths' collective involvement in politics is not new to the Middle Eastern societies. The futuwwa brotherhoods in medieval periods consisted of semireligious, voluntary, urban, youth organizations engaged in acts of chivalry (javan-mardi) protecting the less fortunate, supporting public causes, and at times acting in parallel with official security forces. Though not always viewed positively or engaged in benevolent acts, the futuwwa groups represent early forms of collective action by youths in Muslim societies. These youth organizations imposed strict ethical standards on their members and required strong group loyalty.

Youth movements in the Middle East emerge in the context of politics or popular culture. Youths express themselves through sports, music, and dress. Because most Middle Eastern states are undemocratic, officials have considered the rise of independent social movements a threat to political stability. Any issue that captures youths' attention, even if nonpolitical in nature, takes on a political character, and state officials respond accordingly, exerting control and resorting to repression.

The region's youth movements are usually connected to broader changes under way in society, especially political and cultural developments. Influenced by such developments, these movements in turn intensify the broader changes. For instance, in 1908, drawing young members of the military, a liberal opposition movement known as the Young Turks forced the Ottoman sultan, ˓Abd al-Hamid II (r. 1876–1909), to restore the constitution and parliament that he had suspended in 1878. Youths were also energetic partners in most anticolonial struggles. In Iran, young people, especially university students, were an important force in the push to nationalize the oil industry in the early 1950s. Nowhere have youths' struggles been more intense and persistent as in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, where they have borne the burden of two major uprisings, the Intifada (1987–1988) and Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000–2002). Youths also fought most fervently during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) and in the war that resulted in the withdrawal of the Israeli military from south Lebanon in May 2000. In the 1970s and 1980s, both leftist and Islamic associations grew in countries as far apart as Egypt and Pakistan, polarizing university campuses.

Having little stake in the status quo, young people join opposition groups hoping to create an "ideal society." Both governments and their oppositions exploit youth's abundant idealism and impassioned activism. Because oral traditions are prevalent in Muslim societies, religious and political leaders use their speaking skills to establish credibility, cultivate charisma, and recruit and mobilize followers, particularly youths. In the late 1950 Egypt, Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser's (1918–1970) powerful lectures drew youth support for his policy of Arab unity. During the 1970s, ˓Ali Shari˓ati's (1933–1977) oratory won over Iranian youths to his radical Islamic ideology. In the 1980s and 1990s, ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush's (b. 1945) deft use of language has similarly appealed to Iranian youths in the Islamic Republic, who sympathize with his liberal Islamic ideology. Often, religious leaders attract youths to their political causes through mosques or underground networks, as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), founded in 1928, and the Iranian Fedaiyan-e Islam, created in 1945, have shown.

In societies marked by limited upward political and economic mobility, student movements enable youths to crack the system and open up spaces for participation in the politics. Many nationalist leaders began their political socialization in student organizations. Realizing this fact, governments also try to recruit students to their administrations. In the early 1970s, the shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlevi (1919–1980), undermined the growing power of the Confederation of the Iranian Students in the United States and Europe by luring its leaders to lucrative government posts. The Saudi and Kuwaiti governments have likewise co-opted their young opposition and with greater success than the shah.

The correlation between the emergence of youth movements and economic decline is not strong in the Middle East. Since most youth movements are sociocultural and political, they have arisen during both economic prosperity and decline. In the 1970s, a guerilla movement emerged in Iran as the oil export boom brought new wealth. During the mid-1990s, proreform students formed a movement, reacting to the last decade's political developments rather than to poor economic conditions. The relationship between youth movements and the Iranian state has been discontinuous. When in late 1940s, Mohammad Mosaddeq (1880–1967), then elected prime minister, launched a campaign to end the British control of the Iranian oil industry, students backed both his stance as well as his antimonarchy efforts. However, once the CIA-supported coup ended Mosaddeq's government in 1953, restoring the monarchy, the student movement opposed the shah's rule by using both violent and nonviolent tactics.

In the political arena, the locus of Middle Eastern youth movements is often universities. Where allowed, political organizations and parties establish subsidiaries in universities for recruitment and mobilization. Where outlawed, opposition groups still operate on campuses underground for political agitation and recruitment. In the absence of serious political parties in many societies, student movements become the principal advocates of ideological and political trends in society and a vanguard of change. In the 1980s and 1990s, a host of sociological variables has contributed to the rising expectations among the youth and created fertile grounds for youth activism. In 1998, 40 percent of the Middle Eastern population was under fifteen years old, as opposed to one-fifth for the developed world. The general decline in oil prices around the world, coupled with increasing population, has led to economic decline in the Middle East. Unemployment, aggravated by the increase in the rate of rural-urban migration and urbanization, has led to disenchantment among the youth making further demands for education, social freedom, jobs, housing, and resources for establishing a family. These factors have delivered frustrated youth to extremist ideologies, especially Islamic fundamentalism. The 1990s has witnessed massive recruitment among the youth by Islamic radicals like HAMAS in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Jama˓a Islamiyya in Egypt, the Mobilization (Basij) Forces in Iran, and al-Qa˓ida in Afghanistan.

The most interesting demographic change has been a sharp increase in the number of young women in Middle Eastern universities outnumbering men in a number of fields. In the second decade of the revolution in Iran, more females studied in various fields, despite official restrictions. In Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, the governments encouraged female participation in most aspects of social and political life. Among the Persian Gulf countries, Kuwait, Yemen, and Oman have developed policies promoting female education and social participation, but except in Kuwait, success has been generally slow and limited.

The dominant features of student movements in the region are radicalism, intellectual idealism, anti-authoritarianism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism, and nationalism. The scope of these movements is national and the respective state apparati are their targets of attack. Iran's student movement exemplifies these characteristics the best. A close look at this movement will demonstrate the dynamics and diversity of the student movement in the region.

The Student Movement in Iran

Before mass protests erupted against the Pahlevi regime in 1978, the Iranian student movement splintered into Islamic, liberal, and Marxist factions. The secular or non-Islamic associations, the strongest and largest groups, had ties to the guerrilla movement operating outside of universities. The Muslim associations comprised a small segment of the student movement and had loose contacts with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) and the Freedom Movement of Iran. All these associations cooperated to topple the regime. During the shah's final years, students initiated the process that culminated in revolution. Student poetry readings, lecture series, and political forums were catalysts in a chain of events that crippled the old regime. In 1977, when demonstrations against the shah became widespread, the student associations recruited many members, organized numerous rallies in major cities, and became supporters of Khomeini's call for the shah's departure.

Once the revolution succeeded, students expanded their activities, joined revolutionary forces, and occupied numerous properties belonging to the fleeing former officials. By the time Khomeini returned to Iran, student associations had established de facto headquarters for their respective groups in universities. Faced with the tasks of institution and state building, the clerics considered student demands as obstacles to the consolidation of their power, using the Muslim Student Organization as an instrument to challenge its secular counterparts.

On 4 November 1979, after an earlier attempt by the Marxist organization, the Iranian Fedaiyan Organization, a Muslim student group engaged in the boldest and most consequential act in the history of student activism in Iran: the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the holding of American diplomats as hostages for 444 days. Khomeini endorsed the takeover, capitalizing on this event to undermine opposition to his new theocracy. In 1980, the secular student organizations were effectively outlawed and their members physically attacked by the religious vigilantes. Muslim student associations identified and helped to arrest non-Islamic students, sabotaging their political and cultural activities. This was the first time ever that elements of the Iranian student movement turned against each other. Later, Khomeini ordered universities closed until purged of un-Islamic elements and the grounds laid for their Islamization. He created the Council for Cultural Revolution to review faculty and students' activities as well as university programs. Many activist students and faculty members were fired or arrested for their affiliations with political groups.

When universities reopened two years later, leftist, nationalist, secular, and opposition students and professors were gone, with new Islamic and ideological criteria defined for admission and recruitment. Female students were barred from studying certain disciplines. In addition to meeting educational criteria, students had to show commitment to Islamic values and have an untainted moral history. Until Khomeini's death in 1989, these restrictions remained in force, although students and the faculty had devised mechanisms of resistance.

In the 1980s, numerous Muslim associations were formed at colleges. New admission quotas for war veterans and the armed forces' families enabled these associations to grow. These associations encouraged student participation in government rallies, reported on antigovernment activities and faculty criticisms of the state ideology, and implemented state gender policies by monitoring male-female interactions on campus. In short, the student movement, formerly an active, independent, creative, and antiestablishment force, was transformed into a watchdog of the state, alienating most students who feared religious vigilantism and spying by the government. These associations lost their appeal among students who felt increasingly apathetic and disenchanted. Although these associations' members were closely affiliated with the regime and some occupied government positions, conservatives still suspected some students whose nonconformity and radical outlook they found troubling. Conservative religious organizations established parallel Islamic student associations in the universities to discourage unfavorable and unpredictable activities by others.

Sociological and political factors during the revolution's second decade inspired another momentous rise in student and youth activism. According to the Secretariat of the Supreme Council of the Youth, of 60,055,488 total population in 1997, 40.4 percent, or 24,248,768, were eleven to twenty-nine years old—a 37.3 percent increase since 1987 and more than 104.7 percent growth since 1977. With the doubling of the population between 1978 and 1996, the number of institutions of higher education increased as well. Alienation, disillusion, and frustration among youths intensified. Islamic vigilantes constantly interfered in youths' and women's lives, compelling them to obey strict religious codes of behavior.

After 1988, Iran's clerical establishment split into two major factions. With the decline of the Islamic leftists' fortunes during the 1989 to 1996 period, the student organizations lost their influence within the government. Many of its influential members began careers in political journalism. Radical individuals who had served in high-ranking positions during Khomeini's rule were isolated and pushed to the background. President Mohammad Khatami's election in 1997 breathed new life into the student movement. An unprecedented coalition of dissatisfied youths and women, politically isolated supporters of the Islamic left, and other segments of the public voted for Khatami. A new chapter in student activism had begun.

New student organizations emerged, and activists challenged the conservative faction's authority within the Islamic Republic. Reacting to broad support for Khatami in universities, the conservatives introduced measures to depoliticize students and asserted more control over their organizations. All these measures failed, ironically reinvigorating student activism. As the conservatives blocked Khatami's reformist policies, students marched in his support. As student demonstrations against the judiciary and the conservative faction multiplied, one of the protests, on 8 July 1999, led to a deadly attack on a student dormitory in Tehran by Islamic vigilantes and the police. This attack provoked three days of student uprisings in Tehran and several other cities in that month.

After these uprisings, the government cracked down on the students, leaving them alienated, agitated, and restless as they looked for any opportunity to express their frustrations. Protests spilled over from the universities to the soccer fields, cinemas, and music concerts. Disturbances in various cities following the loss of an international soccer game by the national soccer team in 2001 highlighted widespread discontent with the status quo. In November 2002, students started a series of mass protests at a death sentence passed against Hashem Aghajari, a reformist university professor, for alleged blasphemous remarks about clerics in Iran. In early June 2003, students began a new round of protests in commemoration of an attack on a student dormitory on 9 July 1999. Most of these irregular and spontaneous protests have lacked a clearly articulated political agenda. The government's systematic efforts to weaken the student movement have led youths to become more spontaneous and momentum-driven. Most protests have begun as friendly gatherings rather than as a result of any organization or planning. In fact, the ruling clerics have successfully crushed these protests, despite their persistence, because the students lack organization, goals, and leadership. At the end of February 2003, the students' Office for Consolidating Unity finally expressed its disillusionment with President Khatami by withdrawing its support for the reformist camp in the local elections. A number of student organizations have emerged since, demanding an end to theocracy and the establishement of a secular government based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


During the 1990s, youths in the Middle Eastern countries, especially Iran, have shown a strong desire for Western cultural icons, music, and arts, as they reject the imposition of undemocratic, traditional, and strict policies on their lives. Part of this desire for more freedom is due to the limitations imposed by the states. However, part of it is a demonstration effect: The communications revolution and globalization of local regional economies have stimulated youth's attraction to a material lifestyle as well as to the cultural norms and political freedoms typically identified with Western societies. Government authorities have resorted to various means to limit these demands: In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, state-sponsored programs are designed to respond to the youths' demands by creating synthetic opportunities where nonoffensive and nonpolitical forums are created for releasing youthful energy. While sport has been a successful means for this purpose, cultural and social programs have had little success in tempering these energies. The Iranian government has often resorted to moral campaigns against vice, publicly arresting and flogging violators, thus furthering youth's anger against the government. Interestingly, the appeal of the West contradicts the rejection of the same culture during the Iranian revolution two decades ago. Coupled with the sociological factors discussed earlier, these developments will surely give a new impetus to student activism in the years to come.

See alsoFutuwwa ; HAMAS ; Ikhwan al-Muslimin ; Khomeini, Ruhollah ; Muslim Student Association of North America ; Qa˓ida, al- .


Mahdi, Ali Akbar. "The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis 15, no. 2 (November 1999): 5–32.

Matin Asgari, Afshin. Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publisher, 2001.

Meijer, Roel, ed. Alienation or Integration of Arab Youth:Between Family, State and Street. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press, 2000.

Ali Akbar Mahdi

Youth Movements

views updated May 18 2018


YOUTH MOVEMENTS, as the organized expression of viewpoints held autonomously by a large number of young people, have been rare in the United States. Not until the 1960s did an autonomous youth movement in the sense familiar to people in many other nations achieve a full growth in America. Yet, throughout much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, young people on college campuses have taken conspicuous part in social causes of various kinds.

The largest manifestations of student activism in the period before World War I involved settlement-house work and Christian missionary endeavors. From the 1910s through the 1930s, some college students in the Young Women's Christian Organization forged ties with working-class women to try to improve their working conditions, rather than to proselytize. The Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), founded in 1905 and later renamed the League for Industrial Democracy, had about 1,300 undergraduate members in seventy campus chapters at its peak before World War I. During the 1920s, an independent student voice on public issues began to be heard. The National Student Forum (1921–1929), a clearly liberal organization, was important chiefly because of its weekly newspaper, the New Student, which combined intercollegiate news with liberal commentary.

Campuses first became prominent centers of radical activity in the 1930s, with the main focus on foreign policy. Communist Party members and sympathizers played an important role, especially through the American Student Union (1935–1940), a merger of the Communist-led National Student League (1932–1936) and the student affiliate of the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy. Antiwar sentiment spread far and wide, as an estimated 500,000 students took part in demonstrations or rallies against war in 1936, the third year of such demonstrations. An undetermined but large number of students took the Oxford Pledge, promising refusal to fight in a war if the United States became involved. For the most part the 1930s student movement focused on off-campus issues, except threats to campus freedom of expression.

The 1930s student movement was overshadowed by World War II, and a national climate of intense anticommunism stifled a brief radical political revival in the late 1940s. The federal government and some everyday Americans treated dissenting political ideas as suspect, and left-leaning teachers and students were subjected to various forms of harassment, including loss of jobs. In this atmosphere the only visible "student" group in the 1950s was the National Student Association (NSA) established in 1946, which soon came to depend on covert funding from the Central Intelligence Agency for its survival; the subsidies were given in the belief that the NSA, which took fairly liberal stands on many issues, could be a credible front for the U.S. government in dealing with foreign student groups.

It was the civil rights movement that broke this long period of quietude. Beginning in 1960, students at black colleges in the South held sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters demanding the right to equal service, and student protest groups across the South founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Sympathetic students on predominantly white northern campuses joined SNCC's efforts, and SNCC became an organization of full-time field-workers risking their lives by challenging racial discrimination in some of the most firmly segregationist areas of the Deep South. Student participation in civil rights activity continued, most notably in the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, in which northern volunteers shared the work and dangers of the civil rights organizers.

The 1960s saw numerous other campus movements. During the early 1960s, an antinuclear movement arose. The Student Peace Union (founded 1959) reached its peak of activity in 1961–1962, with about 2,000 members. In the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1964, participants criticized the modern state university as being factorylike in its operation and purposes.

By the mid-1960s, the campus-based movement known as the New Left had emerged. Growing out of the civil rights movement and the free speech movement (along with smaller but similar protest movements at a number of schools), it was greatly stimulated by the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965. The New Left, whose main organizational vehicle was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—although it was much broader than SDS—was the only American radical movement that centered on young people rather than being an adult movement with a following among youth. SDS broke off its nominal affiliation with the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy in 1965 and did not affiliate with any other political group. The New Left focused on racial oppression at home and American imperialism abroad, rather than on class issues. Offering a rebellious youth culture and cogent criticism of the way of life that America offered to its young people, the movement brought in hundreds of thousands of sympathizers. Even though SDS disintegrated in 1969, spontaneous campus protest remained strong through the 1969–1970 school year. The American invasion of Cambodia in 1970, coupled with the killing of four Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard, touched off the greatest wave of campus protests in American history, and hundreds of colleges were closed by protesting students or worried administrators. This was the last major thrust of the student revolt of the 1960s, however. Campuses became quieter over the next several years, partly from cynicism over the benefits of protest and partly from the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1973.

In the 1980s, despite increasing conservativism overall, student activism revived around the issue of racial apartheid in South Africa. Students at campuses across the nation pitched tents in campus "shantytowns" and conducted other protest activities to draw attention to the sordid conditions under which most black South Africans were forced to live. The antiapartheid movement pressured college and university administrations to divest of their holdings in companies that did business in or with South Africa.

In the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, students at a number of major universities launched protests against the use of sweatshops by the manufacturers of college-logo clothing. At the same time, a new, more liberal leadership in the AFL-CIO, the nation's major labor organization, showed increasing interest in organizing previously unorganized groups (such as low-wage chicken processing jobs). The organization began holding "Union Summers," programs in which college students spent a summer learning how to do labor organizing. On many campuses, students and hourly workers joined in "Living Wage" campaigns, seeking to raise wages above the federally mandated minimum. As the twenty-first century opened, political youth movements appeared to be growing again and forging ties beyond campus.


Bloom, Alexander, ed. Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Brax, Ralph S. The First Student Movement: Student Activism in the United States during the 1930s. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1981.

James P.O'Brien/d. b.

See alsoAntiwar Movements ; Civil Rights Movement ; Coeducation Movement .

Youth Movements

views updated Jun 08 2018


Social and political groupings and organizations formed for Middle Eastern adolescents and young adults.

Youth movements have played an important role in Middle Eastern politics and society. Until the late nineteenth century, the defense of neighborhoods was frequently ensured by futuwwa and other informal associations of young men operating as local militias. These "gangs" provided internal order and protection against outside threats and were often engaged in welfare and charitable activities; however, they sometimes preyed on the people instead.

Although in the twentieth century most of these groups disbanded, new kinds of youth movements developed that transcended residential loyalties. Between the two world wars, scouting and Young Men's Muslim associations made their appearance in many Middle Eastern countries. These nonpolitical youth groups frequently provided the nucleus from which full-fledged political movements developed. Initially, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood relied heavily on the scouting movement to spread its religious message.

In the 1930s, several Middle Eastern countries spawned right-wing paramilitary youth associations and sporting clubs that were inspired by Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Franco's Spain. These intensely nationalistic groups recruited primarily among newly educated middle-class students disillusioned with Western-style liberal democracy. They drew their appeal from an admiration of fascist discipline, unity, militancy, organization, and powerand from the hope that Germany and Italy might eliminate Franco-British influence in the Middle East. Members of these groups wore uniforms and followed rituals patterned after those of the Hitler Youth and Franco's Falange. The Phalange party (al-Kata'ib) and the Helpers (al-Najjada), in Lebanon, and Young Egypt (Misr al-Fatat) developed out of such paramilitary groups. The youth groups called Betar, which played an influential role in the development of revisionist Zionism in Europe and in Palestine under the British mandate, were also influenced in their organization and methods by the fascist youth movements.

In Palestine, from 1922 until the early years of the State of Israel, youth movements affiliated with the major Zionist political parties, the National Religious party (NRP) and the Histadrut (Israeli Federation of Labor Unions), played key roles as vehicles of socialization and integration into the Zionist polity and as agents of elite recruitment. Ha-Halutz (The Pioneer), a Zionist farming organization, trained young European Jews to join the agricultural movement in Palestine. The role of the youth branches of Israel's major political parties declined after the mid-1950s, except for B'nei Akivah, the NRP's youth branch, whose regular expansion since 1960 has contributed to the growth of religious nationalism in Israel.

In other Middle Eastern countries, governments have tried to prevent the development of autonomous youth movements. In one-party regimes, the ruling party usually has its own youth section. The most developed example of this is probably the Federation of Iraqi Youth, attached to the Iraqi Baʿth party. Under the auspices of athletic and cultural activities, the federation (which is itself divided into several programs catering to specific age groups) tries to diffuse the party's views among Iraq's younger generation.

Throughout the region, youth movements fueled by rapid population growth have played a leading role in antiregime activities. Student activism was a recurrent feature of political life in the 1970s and 1980s in countries as different as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and Tunisia, where student associations sometimes joined forces with other social groups to participate in riots against the government. In particular, through a variety of Marxist and Islamic-leftist organizations, young people were actively involved in the 1979 downfall of the shah of Iran. More generally, the Islamic resurgence of the 1970s and 1980s has been primarily a movement of disaffected youth (particularly high school and university students of provincial origins and middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds) who have organized themselves through informal religious associations.

Youth associations also contributed to the turmoil of the 1970s in Turkey, where the ultranationalist far-right National Action party used youth groups to spread its message and carry out its actions. Similarly, some of the organizational roots of the Intifada, the uprising of Palestinians that broke out in December 1987 in the Israeli-occupied territories, can be found in youth clubs formed in the 1970s and 1980s. These groups were initially created for cultural, social, and athletic activities, but they rapidly developed into a political movement of resistance to Israel's administration. Youth associations enabled a new generationoften the youth of Palestinian refugee camps, who had known only Israeli rule but who, unlike their elders, could no longer bear to live under such control and felt they had little to loseto vent its anger, frustration, and hatred.

Middle Eastern youth movements also include scouting and Young Men's/Women's Christian associations in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Israeli-ruled territories. In Israel, a Young Men's/Women's Hebrew Association is similar. In the 1970s, a Young Men's and a Young Women's Muslim Association were formed in the West Bank. Like scouting, these associations are concerned with organizing social, cultural, self-help, charitable, skill-training, and athletic activities.

see also futuwwa; muslim brotherhood; phalange; young egypt.


Mardin, Serif. "Youth and Violence in Turkey." European Journal of Sociology 19 (1978): 229254.

El-Messiri, Sawsan. Ibn al-Balad: A Concept of Egyptian Identity. Leiden: Brill, 1978.

Munson, Henry. Islam and Revolution in the Middle East. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Peretz, Don. Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

guilain p. denoeux