Rhodes Scholar and Stanford Graduate, Jared Cohen received his true education traveling through the Middle East where he met with Islamic youth and explored how they view themselves and their place in the world, post 9/11.
Author of One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwandan Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield) and the newly released, Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East (Penguin Books/Gotham Division), Cohen currently works on the Policy Planning Staff of the US Department of State and is responsible for public diplomacy, Muslim world outreach, and North Africa.
Here he describes the experience of interviewing young Islamic militants as an American Jew, shares some insights into the minds of Islamic youth and explains how he came to realize that he and his interview subjects actually have more in common than he ever imagined.
Q. How and when did you become a member of ASW?
Jared Cohen: I joined ASW in December 2005 after a friend of mine at Oxford invited me. She assured me that I would love it.
Q. How do you use ASW and what’s your favorite site feature?
JC: Like so many other ASW users, I have gone through my phases. At certain points I was all about the threads; other times I utilized it when traveling places for the weekend; and on other occasions, I use it just for messaging.
Q. Where did your fascination with the Middle East and fundamentalist Islam come from?
JC: Like so many other people my age, I wanted to learn about and travel to the Middle East because it was a hot topic for a graduate student studying in the aftermath of 9/11. In this sense, what drew me to the Middle East was the same intellectual curiosity that thousands of college kids and graduate students around America were experiencing. While this is what brought me to the Middle East, it was the unexpected reality that kept me traveling there and craving as many experiences as possible. I stumbled into a youth culture that was all too familiar to my own and was inspired by what I saw as more similarities than differences across youth cultures. In the end, I could relate to the similarities and together we could celebrate, learn, and share in the differences.
I really don’t believe in the notion of fundamentalist Islam. I believe in the existence of violent extremism as a dangerous phenomenon that preys on communities where critical thinking has not been introduced. The individuals that we see in the media undertaking suicide attacks and senseless murders of innocent civilians are to me, violent extremists. To link them to a particular religion is to validate their imposing a one-sided partnership with otherwise peaceful religions.
Q. Having met with and studied Islamic youth in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, what are some of the things that surprised you most about their ideas, views and attitudes?
JC: There are two tremendous surprises that I found in my travels:
First, the youth are a completely different phenomenon than the older generations. They have a far greater understanding of the differences between governments, people, and religions. This is why I was never mistreated for being Jewish. They are at a rebellious stage of their lives that lends itself to a life of duality in the form of social and recreational defiance from societal norms. And they use the same technology as adults, but they use it in completely different ways and for completely different purposes. As a result of this, the youth are more emancipated than we give them credit for because they are in a technological world that allows them to engage in resistance or private activity without the knowledge of their government or their parents.
Second, it is such a common misperception that young people join militant or extremist groups because of a deep piety or innate religiosity. When I would ask young militants why they joined their respective group, the initial answer confirmed this assumption; however, the more I engaged with youth who had been drawn into these groups, the more I found that the initial factors drawing them toward extremist groups had very little to do with religion. I actually found that the majority of young extremists were not so much gun-toting masked militants shouting “Alahu Akbar”, but rather broken souls with dangerous toys. They had experienced some very normal feelings of humiliation that any youth could potentially go through and this humiliation led to alienation, which in turn led them to look for belonging. The recruiters from these extremist groups were always there preaching a message of belonging and group identity under the auspices of their own interpretation of Islam.
Q. What do you think are the most common misperceptions about Islam?
JC: The most common misperception about Islam is that it is either monolithic or different than any other faith around the world. Islam as a religion has been victimized in terms of Western perception by a small minority who claim to be Muslim, but are more interested in exploiting an otherwise peaceful religion for their own objectives. Islam—similar to Judaism, Christianity, etc.—has many faces, interpretations, and sects. To generalize about the religion or even refer to the existence of an ‘Islamic world’ is to suggest that it is a uniform religion and identity. I have always been told by my friends and people I have come into contact with that like all religions, Islam is socially constructed around the individual based on their belief system and what society they live in. To share an example (I actually once wrote a thread about this), I was on one of my usual outings for interviews with youth, when I came across four girls, three of whom were wearing the hejab and one who was not. The girl who did not wear hejab explained to me that she was no less religious than the others. I asked her why, if she was deeply religious, did she choose to not wear hejab. In retrospect, I realize that this question was ignorant. But, I had believed incorrectly that the Quran stipulated that all Muslim women must wear hejab. She explained to me that the Quran only says women must cover modest parts of their body and that hejab comes from a Sura about modesty. She then continued by explaining to me, “I wear hejab every day, I wear a metaphorical hejab.” Because the hejab is about modesty, she believed that she was wearing hejab if she was classy, a good person, working to get an education, being true to her family, and being proud of who she is. I asked other girls about this in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon who articulated the same thing, albeit in different words.
Q. In your book, Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East, you discuss how the under-30 generation in the Middle East is the West’s best hope for peace. Why is this so?
JC: It didn’t matter if they were extremist or moderate, secular or non-secular, affiliated with a terrorist group, or a law-abiding citizen; when it came to innate youth qualities, the young people I met were more similar to me as a young American Jew than they were different. I strongly believe that the largest party in every country is the metaphorical ‘youth party’ and it doesn’t necessarily have a political, ethnic, religious, national, or sectarian face to it. Many of these young people share the same hopes, dreams and desires as the youth in America. They are trying to figure out who they are and what their role is in society. As they search for their identity, they are drawn to social and recreational indulgences, they have a fascination with technology, and they often rebel against their community or societal norms in varying degrees of insubordination. While it is impossible as an American to relate to what they experience as Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, or Palestinians; I could always relate to them as my fellow youth.
Q. In your book you talk about meeting with Hezbollah members in a McDonald’s and about Bedouin shepherds with satellite dishes so they can watch Western TV. How do you think Islam is changing in the modern world?
JC: I don’t think this is an issue of Islam changing in the modern world, I think this is an issue of youth changing in the modern world. The reality is that 60 percent of Muslim communities around the world are under the age of 30. As a result, the communities are changing, not necessarily the religion. As all religions are intertwined with culture and society this is a natural outcome. But this is also not something exclusive to Muslim communities. Christian and indigenous religious communities in Africa are changing as a result of new technologies, Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia and communities throughout Latin America are also changing rapidly as a result of technology.
The current generation of youth is the first generation socialized into societies with high prevalence of satellite TV, mobile phones, and Internet. While adults use these same technologies, they use them primarily for traditional communications. The youth use these same technologies in completely different ways and for completely different purposes. For them, it is a source of entertainment, expression, and life-enhancement. As a result, the current generation of youth is the most emancipated generation we have seen in our life time. They can act one way at home and in their community, and have a completely different identity over the Internet or through their mobile phones. Because the digital and technological world offers them opportunities to generate their own media and entertainment, they are learning critical thinking through self-exploration in what one could call ‘digital democracy’.
Q. Do you think the world’s perception of fundamentalist Muslims is very different from reality?
JC: For me, the fundamental misperception is that radicalization is something inherently linked to Islam. The reality is that radicalization as a process has existed since the beginning of time. It is the process by which illicit actors hijack impressionable young minds and exploit them to achieve criminal ends. Geography determines what form that takes. In Latin America, radicalization takes place through the gangs. In Russia it takes place through international organized crime. In the Middle East and South Asia it takes place under the auspices of extremist Islamist groups, and in the United States it takes place through inner city gangs.
As for the question about fundamentalist Muslims, I think extremist anything is harmful. Islam is a peaceful religion and those individuals that undertake terrorist attacks are extremists that merely seek to exploit a peaceful religion.
Q. Did being an American Jew make things difficult for you when you were traveling through Muslim countries and meeting with fundamentalist Muslim groups? How were you received?
JC: Being Jewish has never been a problem for me. I have never had to hide my identity and I have never been threatened because of it either. The youth are particularly good at distinguishing between governments, people, and religions. In part, this is because many young people are displeased with their own governments, disenchanted with some of their own religious leaders, and exposed to a world outside of their own through new media.
Q. How does your own background affect the way you approach the subject of Jihad in the Middle East and around the world?
JC: The more time I spend in the Middle East the more I want to understand and learn from my peers. ‘Jihad’, as a term, has been polluted by extremists. As a pillar of Islam, the term, I am told, means more broadly the pursuit of knowledge, the providing of charitable services, and a number of other characteristics that have nothing to do with violence or war. I have actually started to study Quran weekly with an Imam in Virginia so that I can better understand the theology as I venture out into different parts of the world and so that I can engage in conversations about the different interpretations of the Quran.
Q. From your studies in the Middle East, did you find much hope?
JC: I have hope because of all of the people that I have met who brought me in and share their stories with me. I have hope because I could relate to them as youth and because what they want is no different from what young people around the world crave. The existence of this youth phenomenon is our best hope, but one that will only be realized if their basic needs are met.
Q. What makes you happiest?
JC: Knowing that I have friends and family that I would do anything for and that make me a better person.
Q. Where is your favorite travel destination
Q. What is your greatest vice?
JC: I can’t resist a night out even if it means I am exhausted the next day, especially if I am in another country.
Q. What is your favorite restaurant?
JC: More fun than my favorite restaurant is my favorite lunch place to gossip, which is Tartine in South Kensington
Q. What is your favorite museum or gallery?
JC: The MOMA in Paris
Q. What film has had the greatest effect on you? Why?
JC: Schindler’s List for personal reasons; other than that, I would say, The Battle of Algiers
Q. What is your favorite book?
JC: Non-fiction: Ed Hussain’s The Islamist. Fiction: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life
Q. What cause is closest to your heart? Why?
JC: Education and critical thinking because without it, youth are not equipped to charter their own courses of action.
Q. What’s one thing you would like to change about yourself?
JC: I wish I was able to sit back and relax and that I was not so hard on myself
Q. Which artist do you admire most?
JC: Chuck Close, because of how he has turned challenges in his life into artistic advantages.
Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
JC: Snuck into the civil war in the Eastern Congo under a pile of bananas or snuck into the Ain al-Hilwaih Palestinian camp while getting chased by the Lebanese Armed Forces; either way, sneaking into something.
Q. Who is your favorite historical figure?
JC: Woodrow Wilson for his vision
Q. What upsets you the most?
JC: Exploitation of youth
Q. What is your favorite bar?
JC: Sky Bar in Beirut! Eclipse in London!
Q. What gadget can’t you live without?
JC: My BlackBerry
Q. What are you most afraid of?
JC: Something happening to someone I love.
Q. What are your top 3 songs?
JC: Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’
All things by Bob Sinclair because it reminds me of Beirut in the Summer of 2005
Green Day’s ‘Time of Your Life’ because it is reflective
— Laura Jakobovits