FOR YOUTH IN OUR FUTURE WORLD”
- It gives me great pleasure to address this third conference on Islamic Thought and Civilization, this year with the theme of Future World. I would like to extend a warm welcome to our guests from overseas as well as the many eminent and learned Malaysians who are here. As in previous years, we can look forward to the presentation of papers on a wide range of interesting topics, which in the past have covered everything from the contribution of Islamic thought to philosophy to the expansion of Islamic finance.
- The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has identified seven essential dimensions of human security – economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security; a similar agenda to that outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I am glad to note that most of these areas will be directly or indirectly deliberated upon through the five sub-themes of this Conference :
- Future World of Higher Knowledge
- Climate Change and Humanitarian Issues
- Good Governance, Economics and Finance
- Media and International Politics
- Young Generation and Leadership
Of the many topics to be discussed here at the conference, I will focus my address today on the sub-theme of the ‘Young Generation and Leadership’. Ultimately it is in their hands that our Future World lies.
3. The Young Generation will play an absolutely central role in shaping our Future World. They represent our collective hope for the future, and they are our greatest resource. It will be up to them to take the lead in responding to the formidable global challenges we currently face, whether from environmental degradation; from poverty; from war, terrorism and geopolitical instability; and from the exciting but potentially dangerous impacts of the accelerating progress in technology in various fields. The ability of our youth to address these issues effectively will determine perhaps even the very survival of the world as we know it.
4. The enormous strides that have been made in recent decades in reducing poverty means that today’s youth are at least increasingly well equipped to deal with these challenges. The World Bank estimates that nearly 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since the early 1980s, with rising incomes accompanied by gains in health and education. Although these gains have been concentrated in India and China, and particularly the latter, they have been felt across the world including in the Muslim countries. These improvements will contribute to the ability of today’s Young Generation to address the global challenges that affect us all.
5. Youth account for around a quarter of the global population, with an estimated 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24. These are disproportionately concentrated in developing countries, where 9 out of 10 young people live. Across the developing world and in the majority of OIC countries, youth account for closer to one third of the population. Proportions are highest in the least developed countries concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. In India alone there are around 356 million young people, the highest number in the world. Of these roughly 50 million are young Muslims. Other large youth populations can be found in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These have 67, 59 and 48 million young people respectively.
6. Youth are also currently the fastest growing demographic group in less developed countries, although this will change as incomes rise. But even when the proportion of youth starts to decline, their overall numbers will continue to increase. Mid-range projections by the UN suggest that there will be 2 billion young people by the middle of the century. This so-called youth bulge offers enormous potential. The higher proportion of productive to dependent members of society creates a major ‘demographic dividend’ that can drive economic growth. This is in marked contrast to the challenge faced in more developed countries, where aging populations represent a growing burden on the declining proportion of those of working age. As well as their economic contributions, the largest ever generation of youth coming of age today can produce the leaders, the visionaries and the change-makers that the world so desperately requires.
7. But the youth bulge also presents considerable challenges, particularly in relation to the increasing competition it will create for services and employment. Far greater investment in human capital in particular will be absolutely crucial if we are to ensure that today’s youth are fully empowered both to achieve individual fulfillment and to be able to contribute to society more broadly. As suggested in a UN report on this topic, ‘young people are the innovators, creators, builders and leaders of the future. But they can transform the future only if they have the skills, health, decision-making and real choices in life.’  The skills and choices that allow youth to play these roles may however be undermined by the increased pressure on services associated with a large and growing youth population.
8. Great strides have been made across the world in terms of health and education provision over the past generation or so, as mentioned. Some Muslim-majority countries have seen improvements of 25% or more in their education and health indicators since 1990, as reflected in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. These measure life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling. Other measures show similar progress, with declining infant and maternal mortality and an expansion of tertiary education across the board. Countries with significant improvements in health and education outcomes can be found across the Muslim world, from Kazakhstan and Azerbajan to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and throughout the Middle East, and here in South-East Asia in Malaysia and Indonesia. Many of these countries as a result are now classified as having high human development.
9. The generation now coming of age have benefited directly from these advances over the past decades. Improvements in health and education outcomes have been accompanied by rising incomes, with the two of course intimately linked as strengthened human capital contributes directly to economic productivity. This also reflects the sustained economic growth that has been experienced across the world over the past few decades. So while more opportunities for advancement are now being generated, more people than ever before are able to seize them due to their greatly improved health and education status.
10. This strengthened ability to access and exploit opportunity, and in this way achieve upward mobility, lies at the very heart of the development process, as defined by Amartya Sen in his book, ‘’Development as Freedom”. For Sen, these social and economic freedoms, as well as the political freedoms necessary to their provision, represent both the means and the ends of development. Improved personal outcomes in turn provide a more solid foundation for individuals to play a bigger role in society, as leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs. But unless greater investment is made directly into further expanding the provision of health, education and other services, these gains may come under threat from the youth bulge.
11. Shrinking employment opportunities for young people due to their increasing numbers carries even greater risks. Youth unemployment already presents a significant challenge globally, contributing to political unrest as well as migration flows. A relatively high proportion of international migrants are of this age group. Political turmoil and conflict are key factors behind the unprecedented levels of international migration we are currently experiencing. But many young migrants are driven simply by a lack of available employment in their home countries, and the desire to build a better life in areas with greater employment opportunities. The two factors are also closely linked, with a lack of decent employment opportunities for the young itself contributing to political unrest. This process can become a vicious cycle as investors are discouraged from taking the higher business risks associated with political turmoil, thus further limiting employment creation.
12. Relatively high levels of youth unemployment have been widely identified as a root cause in the youth-led uprisings of the Arab Spring. One estimate puts youth unemployment in Muslim countries at 15.6%, almost a quarter higher than the global average of 12.6%. In Tunisia, where the phenomenon started, youth unemployment is over 30%, while in Arab countries, 50% of those unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24. In order to keep pace with projected population growth in the Middle East, an estimated 80 million new jobs must be created over the next 15 years.  The failure to do so could contribute to further political unrest in the many countries that are experiencing a youth bulge in this way.
13. Apart from demographic factors, employment is also under threat from new technologies, which are evolving at an ever-accelerating rate. Some futurists believe that current advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will create mass unemployment as machines take over from tasks previously done by humans. Machines can now be programmed to conduct tasks that involve mental as well as physical skills. These include driving as well as various activities in the services sector from fast food to retail. Machines can even be programmed to deliver professional services that require high levels of training, such as in medical and legal services. While the impact of these developments is hard to predict with any certainty, this ‘technological unemployment’ is likely to exacerbate greatly the problems created by the youth bulge.
14. Despite these challenges from demographic and technological dynamics, today’s youth are still better off than at any other time in history. The extent of this progress, and its concrete benefits for the current generation of youth, sometimes gets lost in the more negative focus of the international media on disaster, war and terrorism, and the flows of migrants that these create. This is particularly the case in relation to Muslim youth. While the life chances of youth in some countries are very badly affected by war and violence, particularly those in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, there are many more that are experiencing the same unprecedented progress as everyone else.
15. The international media, bombards us daily with negative images of young Muslims, whether as the perpetrators of violence, as jihadists, warriors and terrorists, or as its victims, fleeing bombed out cities or grieving the loss of loved ones. In relation to the Arab Spring, the lasting perception again is of Muslim youth involved in violence – protesters being beaten by security forces, tear gas canisters being thrown – and of the resulting chaos in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Muslim immigrant populations living in the West, whether recent refugees or second-generation nationals, are similarly often portrayed as unemployed, marginalized and disaffected, and susceptible as a result to recruitment by terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
16. These images shape and perpetuate these misperceptions of Muslim youth. Such misperceptions serve the political agendas of some right wing politicians in the West who generate support by stirring up nationalistic fears. The successful Brexit campaign in the UK demonstrated just how effective this approach can be. The dissemination of negative stereotypes of Muslim youth as violent also plays into the hands of extremists in the Muslim world. They similarly seek to generate support by promoting belief in an unbridgeable divide between the Islamic world and the West. The terrorist attacks perpetrated by these extremists on Western targets then deepens further these negative stereotypes. Islamophobia is a very real concern for many Muslim youth growing up in the West who are experiencing growing and increasingly open hostility. These dynamics present a serious challenge for our young generation, both for those in Muslim minority countries and for those in the Middle East at the heart of the conflicts.
17. The disaffection and associated violence that is presented as a trend is in fact an exception to the overall development that is benefitting young Muslims across the world. As mentioned, there are many Muslim-majority countries with high and rising levels of human development. A quarter of countries classified by the UNDP as having high human development are Muslim-majority ones, and this proportion would be significantly higher if calculated according to population. The improvements that have been experienced in these countries over the past generation means that their young people today are considerably better off than their parents. Muslim youth living in Muslim-minority countries in the West enjoy even higher levels of development, and those benefitting from the available opportunities vastly outnumber those very few who reject them in favour of fanaticism and violence.
18. Misperceptions persist however, reflecting in part the very real gulf between the West and the Muslim world. This gulf has arisen due to complex historical and geo-political factors, as well as the manipulation by extremists on both sides who seek to gain by this polarization. Some of the issues involved currently appear almost intractable, particularly the worsening conflicts in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, in which Western interests and agendas play a key role. The escalating abuses being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people generates deep and justified grievances among Muslims throughout the world. Competition over access to the region’s oil and gas resources is another key factor that creates further mistrust of the motives of the West. On the other side, the upsurge in terrorist attacks on Western targets and the killing of civilians has exacerbated existing antipathy towards the Muslim world and the erroneous association of Islam with this violence.
19. It is crucial that the moderate majority on both sides of the divide take the initiative to promote reconciliation. This is necessary in part to ensure that Muslim youth in Muslim-minority countries can pursue their lives without fear and prejudice. It is also vital to prevent further escalation that only feeds the agendas of extremists on both sides. Bridging the divide is a difficult and complex task that will require substantial efforts on both sides. As I discussed some years ago in an address to the World Muslim Leadership Forum, for our part in the Muslim world, we must work on building at least three bridges. These bridges must be built internally, between our leaders and those they govern, and externally, both among ourselves, and between ourselves and the West. The bridges must all be strong, and should reinforce each other. Together they can contribute to reducing this key area of conflict and ensure a more peaceful Future World.
20. The first and most critical is the bridge between Muslims and their government. In order to strengthen further the human development gains that have been made in many Muslim countries, there is a need for greater progress in relation to political participation. This could help to address some of the sources of dissatisfaction that were expressed in the Arab Spring. These youth-led uprisings have broadly failed to fulfil the aspirations of those involved, and have instead resulted in considerable further instability and violence. This in turn has created massive new refugee flows and contributed to the emergence of new terrorist groups. While the broader conflicts in the region can only be resolved at the international level, the aspirations of the region’s youth for greater political inclusion can only be met locally.
21. Local actors must also take the lead in building the second bridge, which entails greater cooperation between Muslim countries. This will in turn contribute to the ability of Muslim countries to manage their relations with the West more effectively. Greater coordination between Muslim countries will also enable us to play a more effective role in responding to the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to the terrorism they help to generate. Organizations like the OIC are making progress in developing better communication and greater collaboration between Muslim countries. But serious internal divisions and rivalries remain, which themselves of course play a key role in exacerbating the conflicts in the region.
22. The bridge between the Muslim world and the West can ultimately only be built through a resolution of these difficult conflicts. However intractable these appear, greater efforts must be made on both sides both to seek more effective dialogue and to address the root causes. If this is unrealistic in the present circumstances, as appears to be the case in Palestine and in Syria, at the very least ways much be sought to avoid further escalation and to do more to protect the civilian victims of these conflicts. In this regard, one useful focus for our attention could be on trying to promote greater adherence to international humanitarian law on all sides in the Syrian conflict.
23. The challenges faced by our youth as they confront our Future World will be immense. The development gains that have benefitted many in past decades are in danger of being eroded by the sheer weight of numbers as many developing countries experience a ‘youth bulge’. Efforts must be made to protect these gains and promote further development, as we are doing here in Malaysia through Vision 2020, with its focus on strengthening human capital and further expanding the middle class. Shrinking employment opportunities, whether from growing demographic pressures or technological advances, also present a significant set of risks for today’s youth. If this generation and subsequent ones are to flourish, greater efforts must be made to develop appropriate education strategies that take into account the likely impact of technological advances, and much greater investment must be made into the expansion of alternative employment options.
24. Finally, the widening gulf between the Muslim world and the West, and the violence this generates, must be addressed. Otherwise our youth in the Muslim-minority countries will be increasingly vulnerable to prejudice and hostility, while the hopes and dreams of the next generation of youth at the centre of these conflicts will continue to be destroyed.
25. I hope you will not shy away from some of these difficult issues as you proceed with your discussions during the conference. With that hope, it is with great pleasure that I now declare the 3rd World Conference on Islamic Thought and Civilization open, with the powerful words:
Bismillahi Allahu Akbar!
- UNFPA ‘The Power of 1.8 Billion’ http://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/EN-SWOP14-Report_FINAL-web.pdf ↑
- ibid. ↑
- www.hdr.undp.org ↑
- Amartya Sen ‘Development as Freedom’ 1999, Random House, LLC ↑
- http://www.dailysabah.com/op-ed/2016/04/14/youth-should-be-main-priority-for-muslim-leaders ↑
- Raja Nazrin Shah ‘Bridging the Muslim and Western World for Peace and Development’, Occasional Papers Series No. 1, October 2010, The Cordoba Foundation ↑