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New Texts Out Now: Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, "Being Young and Muslim"

[Cover of [Cover of "Being Young and Muslim"]

Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, editors, Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat: Both of us (editors) were involved in studying youth in Muslim majority contexts for a number of years and from different angles. Linda had been working on issues of youth in relation to the cultures and politics of schooling for almost two decades. While at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (2005-2010), she convened the Children and Youth Studies MA specialization and reoriented her research focus to youth and international development. Asef became interested in youth in the late 1990s by studying youth politics in Iran in the context of the reform movement. That interest was extended to understanding everyday politics of the youth in Egypt. When he joined the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) as director, he initiated a program on cultural politics of Muslim youth.  

Our perspective widened on moving from the Middle East to the Netherlands. We became quickly attuned to the “Muslim youth problem” as articulated in the European context, where Muslim youth are framed as a social problem in highly ideological, oftentimes racist, and gendered ways. In the wake of not only 9/11 but also the 11 March 2004 Madrid train attacks and the 21 July 2005 London subway bombings, young Muslim men, including converts to Islam, are often depicted in public discourses as security threats who are dangerous and prone to extremism. Those whose origins can be traced to Morocco and Turkey are also viewed as economic liabilities—a drain on society’s resources. As for young Muslim women—specifically ones who don head and/or face covers and opt for pious youthhood—they are viewed more as posing threats to the cultural traditions and “core values” of liberal European societies. We wanted to understand the conditions of being young and Muslim within the structural and political economic context in which these young people live and how they negotiate their positions within such structures. We were interested in investigating how they try to carve out new spaces for self-expression and alternative politics.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

LH and AB: The book interrogates the trajectories, conditions, and choices of Muslim youth in the current post-9/11, neo-liberal, connected global era. Our interest began with the Middle East and Europe, but expanded to cover Africa and Asia as we have witnessed how Muslim youth, as a global category, have been thrust in different ways onto a world stage in relation to questions about security and extremism, work and migration, and rights, citizenship, and multiculturalism.

The book is divided into five sections to allow for the exploration of different dimensions of the cultures and politics of Muslim youth: “The Politics of Dissent”; “Livelihoods and Lifestyles”; “Strivings for Citizenship”; “Navigating Identities”; and “Musical Politics.” The chapters demonstrate that while the majority of young Muslims share many common social, political, and economic challenges, they exhibit remarkably diverse responses to them. Far from being "exceptional," young Muslims often have as much in common with their non-Muslim global generational counterparts as they share among themselves.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from each of your previous research and writing?

LH and AB: Linda had previously been working from a vantage point of the critical ethnography of schooling and international educational development.  With this work, her focus shifted to youth rather than formal education, though it still probes the critical questions from earlier research dealing with globalization, citizenship, agency, and equity. The book has also provided the opportunity to move outside a regional perspective of the Middle East and North Africa, to a more global orientation.  

Asef, since the 1980s, had been exploring the politics of various social groups, beginning with the industrial workers in the Iranian revolution of 1979. Since the 1990s, he has been working on Middle Eastern social movements (such as Islamism and post-Islamism) as well as on “non-movements” (including the urban poor, and Muslim women). Delving into the social and political life of Muslim youth became a natural progression of this trajectory.

[Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square. Photo via Google Images.]

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LH and AB: We hope students who are keen to understand youth driven political and cultural movements in a global era, generational change in a period of late neoliberalism, and how youth became so instrumental in the current Arab revolts will read this book. The book should also have resonance for students more generally of Middle East studies, development studies, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, African studies, and youth studies. We also hope that this volume will appeal to policy makers whose work touches and potentially influences the lives of young people.

J: How did you determine the contributors to and subjects covered by this book, given the wide-ranging nature of the topic?

LH and AB: We wanted to bring together scholars with different disciplinary and regional expertise who would not normally be in conversation with each other. Our objective was to create a space for an intergenerational community of scholars to interact around a common set of questions around the cultural politics of youth in the global South and North. It was also important for us to select contributors who work directly with young people, to reflect the voices and lives of youths in their empirically grounded research. The contributors are from the fields of anthropology, sociology, media studies, educational policy studies, urban studies, Islamic studies, development studies, and English literature, with a wide range of regional expertise.

J: What other projects are you each working on now?

LH and AB: Linda is currently co-authoring a book that examines the intersections between Arab youth, new media technologies, and revolution. She is also developing a broader research project on “youth and citizenship in the digital age.”

Currently, Asef is finalizing a book on Post-Islamism at Large that explores the transformation of Islamist movements in ten Muslim majority countries. Both established and young scholars have contributed to this volume. In the meantime, Asef has begun to work on the second edition of his LIfe as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010) to address the current Arab revolutions and Iran’s Green wave.

Excerpt from Being Young and Muslim:

Chapter 1: Introduction

The current demographic shift heavily tilted towards a young population has caused a remarkable change in the social composition of Muslim majority countries. Youth have assumed a central, if complex, place in the politics and cultures of these societies, as well as in societies where Muslims make up a sizable minority. Due to a combination of the shifting moral politics at home, the relentless process of neoliberal globalization, the geopolitics of neo-imperialism, the rise of a civilizational discourse in which “Islam” is positioned in opposition to the “West,” unprecedented levels of school and university graduates combined with crises of unemployment, youth cultures are developing in novel ways with consequences of historical significance. Their expressions of interests, aspirations, and socioeconomic capacities appear to be producing a new cultural politics. In other words, the cultural behavior of Muslim youths can be understood as located in the political realm and representing a new arena of contestation for power.

While often referred to as the “builders of the future” by the power elite, the young are also stigmatized and feared as “disruptive” agents who are prone to radicalism and deviance. Although gender, class, and cultural divisions may render untenable a homogenous treatment of youths, or even call into question “youth” as an analytical category, it is equally true that the young undeniably share a certain important habitus and historical consciousness which is recognized by both the young themselves as well as by the political establishment and moral authorities. The complex status of Muslim youths in these neoliberal times is what we intend to explore in this book.

The objective of this volume, then, is to interrogate questions about the cultural politics of Muslim youth from the perspective of the youths themselves, from the viewpoint of political and moral authorities who consider it their role to discipline, control, and formulate policies for the young, and from an understanding of market and media forces where youth are both consumers and producers. Furthermore, the volume explores intersections of the global with the local, with special attention to how specific attitudes, cultural behaviors and tendencies are instigated among the young and how these may have changed since September 11, 2001. The “construction” of Muslim youth therefore represents a dialectical interplay between different forces and actors.


The youth represented in this volume are roughly between 15-29 years old, born in the years from 1979-1993. They are “the most highly educated generation in human history” (UNDESA 2005: 13). Education, however, has not necessarily translated into better opportunities, security, or livelihood. This generation has had to maneuver in an economic order of mature neoliberalism which has seen the dismantling of welfare states and public provisioning of all sorts and rise of insecure labor arrangements. Youth, especially those from low and middle-income countries, continuously confront an array of insecurities and hurdles with regard to their current lives and future prospects (Herrera 2006). Some 90% of the world’s young are located in the global post-colonial South, in regions that experienced massive transformations and political upheavals in the decades following World War II and leading up to national independence from colonial rule. The youthful revolutionary generation who took part in the anti-colonial, nationalist, and Third World non-alignment movements from the 1950s to the 1970s gained not only a political consciousness about the power of collective movements to engender change, but lived during an historical moment of global upheaval when change was not only possible but inevitable. Those youths who were leaders and active participants in struggles which now date back to over half a century, are now elder statesmen, members of the religious, business, and government establishments, and also leaders of the political opposition parties. Whether in opposition movements or ruling parties, political elites do not have a good record of allowing the current younger generation, with the exception of their own offspring, into the corridors of power, opportunity, and privilege. In Egypt for instance, as in many other states on the continent and in the region, there is a veritable battle of generations as today’s "historic" leaders, from the 1950s and 1960s who are well into their seventies and eighties hold on to their power monopolies.

This generation has come of age in a post-Cold War era, supposedly more unipolar world with a highly militarized United States at its head (though the rise of competing powers cannot be disputed). At the same time, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 provided the iconic imagery for a new era when human rights would become the moral and political compass for the world’s nations and peoples, the “official ideology of the new world order” (Douzinas 2007: 32). Hopes were raised for the spread of a global order steeped in principles of rights, justice, democracy, gender equity, and participation. School systems worldwide in which these youth have participated, have seen an unprecedented convergence on educational reforms that promote, at least on the formal policy level if not always in practice, children’s rights, global citizenship, and youth participation (Herrera 2008). Whereas educational institutions provide a vertical and formal pedagogic space to promote a changing consciousness about citizenship and rights, the burgeoning information and communications technology (ICT) offers a more horizontal pedagogic space. Muslim youth, like their global counterparts, have come of age during the technological and communications revolution and a vibrant period of youth cultural production and participation. Youth of disparate ideological, social, political, cultural persuasions collectively take part in global youth cultures as producers and consumers of cyber-based political and social platforms, musical and fashion trends. The World Wide Web, which in the mid-1990s had a limited reach, by 2009 has become ubiquitous and transformed means of communication, organization, and information. Global youth cultures spread and interact using means of blogging, shared videos through YouTube (created 2005) and social networking sites including Facebook (launched 2004), My Space (2002) and Twitter (2006). To be sure this generation, the “e (electronic)-generation” or “internet generation” “operates in a more interactive and less hierarchical way, and there is greater scope for mutual influence” (Edmunds and Turner 2005: 569). On a massive and growing scale, youth use the new media as a tool for peer interaction, leisure, consumption, generating and consuming information, and an array of direct and indirect political action, uses which are not mutually exclusive.

Insofar as they have come of age in a common “world time” and take part in the cultural politics of a global youth culture, Muslim youth are part of a global generation. But the fateful events surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, longer standing geopolitical conflicts in the Muslim Middle East, Asia, and Africa, debates and policy changes in Europe and North America on Islam, integration and multiculturalism, combined with situations of marginality and crises of livelihood for Muslim youth throughout the South and North, has set apart Muslim youth in some significant ways as a generational subset. Muslim youth today are struggling to assert their youthfulness, claim rights, and make life transitions in a highly fraught post-9/11 global moment in which they are subject to media scrutiny, surveillance, a range of policy interventions to contain them, influence them, steer them on a certain path, and cultivate in them a strong Islamic identity. But these youths diverge radically among themselves in how to turn their common sentiments into action, how to respond to their status of “subordination.”

Among global youth generally, but Muslim youth in an even more pronounced way, there appears to be a growing generational consciousness, diffused partially through the new media, about issues of social justice and human rights accompanied by a profound moral outrage at the violation of fundamental rights. Young people blog, sing, protest, agitate, join formal and informal organizations, and find myriad other ways to claim their rights and assert their will for justice, livelihoods, and lifestyles.

[Excerpted from Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat (eds), Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North. @ 2010 by the Oxford University Press, Inc. Excerpted by permission of the authors. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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