The minister and the young speak the truth

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Officials and private sector speakers in Jordan and other Arab countries routinely stress the fact that our populations are relatively young, and that meeting youths needs for jobs, housing, cultural and sports activities, and other basic needs is a top national priority. In fact, three out of every four Jordanians are aged under 30. It is interesting to note that Their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania, whose youth was highlighted when the King ascended to the throne two years ago at the age of 37, actually fall within the oldest quartile of Jordanians.

Taking advantage of our youth is one of the greatest opportunities facing the Arab World and its leaderships. But it remains unclear if the Arab politico-economic establishments appreciate the full dimensions and implications of having such a young population, or are aware of what the youth are trying to tell us. The Jordanian minister of youth, the wise and straight-talking Saeed Shuqum, last week said in a public lecture that our youth are frustrated and need to be heard more by older Jordanians who control most aspects of life, government, culture, and economy. He specifically said that older Jordanians who control the power structure need to loosen up and allow younger Jordanians to play a greater role in decision-making in society.

It is heartening to hear a senior government official acknowledge the real frustrations of young Jordanians and to call publicly for changes in how society is run. He also has put his ministry where his mouth is by launching a Youth Commission that will look at long-term strategies in this sector while coordinating among the many, fragmented institutions that address youth-related issues.

While commending the government for moving in this direction, I also hope that it is aware of and prepared to deal with the full implications of youths frustrations, complaints, aspirations and suggestions — for our young people are raising the tough political, social and economic issues that our older people have steadfastly refused to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner in recent years.

We surely do not have the excuse that we dont know what our youth want or feel. A series of workshops, surveys, and reports on youth in Jordan over the past several years has unambiguously revealed that young Jordanians are widely concerned about securing a good education and finding a job that pays enough for them to marry and have an enjoyable, fulfilling adult life. More importantly, they identify the underlying reasons for their concern as problems that can be classified in two key areas: the first is discrimination, favoritism, and abuse of power by the elite and others in society, and the second are the controls that the culture and state often place on youths natural desire to manifest their identities and express themselves in social and political terms.

In other words, our youth are not only asking for more and better basketball courts and school theatres. Theyre targeting perhaps the most sensitive but crucial aspects of society — the individuals identity, liberty, and perceived sense of communal justice and fairness. They raise the very important issues that will determine if we will remain a provincial, traditional, modest and increasingly marginalized Arab culture, or if we will modernize and achieve wealth, stability and equity by adding the power of the equally applied rule of law to the existing strengths of our ancient patriarchal and Arab-Islamic-Christian values.

Young Jordanians, unlike their parents, articulate their real fears and routinely express in public their concerns about sensitive and explicitly political issues. This is an important starting point for change. It means that we can collectively identify the issues that concern us as a society, and then seek a consensus on how to tackle those issues. Youth are stating clearly that the fundamental issue that concerns them and that cuts across all social, political, ethnic, religious, economic, and gender lines — is the issue of discrimination and abuse of power for personal or family/tribal gain. The young fearlessly demand that such discrimination end by a more equitable and consistent application of the rule of law.

The starting point for tackling this important issue is to determine if the youths complaints are valid, in part or in total, and if so to determine how such problems can be gradually eliminated. The dilemma for older Jordanians is that most of these complaints are deemed too sensitive to touch — complaints of mutual discrimination or favoritism by Jordanians of different geographic origins (Transjordan, Palestine, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, central Asia, among others), of the Muslim and Christian faith, among city, village and badia dwellers, from the north or south of the country, among wealthy and poor Jordanians, among government employees and the private sector, or men and women, young and old, and other such criteria. These and other complaints touch the very heart and soul of the fundamental relationship between a citizen and his or her state; such a relationship is manifested in phenomena like election laws, parliamentary districting, judicial efficiency and independence, parliamentary oversight of the executive, the state bureaucracys employment patterns, access to the official media, opportunities for public political expression, and other such crucial issues of modern governance.

It is possible that older citizens who have built the modern Arab state and dominated the public power structure for many decades are simply unable to grasp the importance or even the validity of such native complaints. The very fact that our own children — rather than, say, the American Congress or the British press — raise these issues makes it all the more imperative and urgent to look into them. The longer we delay dealing with our real challenges, the more difficult it will be to resolve them when we finally decide to tackle them seriously. The minister of youth, like youth themselves, speaks the truth, and should be listened to.

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