They were bright, educated, savvy, and well-read. Anyone would wish they were his children, students, or upcoming leaders in his community. However, as we sat together talking, I could sense how frustrated and paralyzed they were on what they could do to bring the necessary change for reconciliation to their communities. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many groups of young upcoming leaders, mostly of the millennial generation, in our community that I’m conversing with about leadership and vision in our society.
Talk about the millennial generation is prevalent all over the world. Typically blamed for being lazy, impatient, and overly absorbed in time wasting technological and social media use, some may refer to all young people as belonging to the millennial generation, but technically the criteria is being born between the 1980’s and the early 2000’s. You may have heard youth, community, and church leaders try to elucidate the challenges millennials face, such as high levels of anxiety and depression, high unemployment rates despite high levels of education, and sorting through fake news in search of the truth.
In the Middle East, the millennial generation faces similar challenges but there is another issue that is problematic: trying to bring about change in society. One of the things that we see while seeking reconciliation in the Israel-Palestine conflict is the need for a change; however, change is very difficult and appears threatening to those in power. They benefit from an imbalance of power within a conflict and don’t want those benefits to change or cease.
The major obstacle to bringing about change for the millennial generation is the patriarchal system. Middle Eastern culture is patriarchal in nature, meaning that the leaders of the community, family, or religious group are mostly male, and these leader’s role is not only to represent their group but also to make sure the members show allegiance to him and don’t break the status quo of their clan. For the young people and especially the women, this leader will make sure they are behaving in a certain way and not breaking any norms of behavior or challenging the boundaries set for them.
In the patriarchal system, the leader or elder has the role as head of the community and guarder of the safety of his clan, but he also serves a larger purpose for those above him: to keep things at the status quo. Political powers use these figures to control society and make sure little to no change is allowed and that boundaries are not broken. This tends to happen especially in non-individualistic societies. Those higher up in the power structure, be they governing authorities or higher up church authorities, reward this leader for keeping everyone in line.
Members of the clan become frustrated that their issues are never addressed. The millennial generation has been raised in this system and has not had the opportunity to make important life decisions or develop ethical capacities for decision making, so they’re dependent on the elders. You may be wondering: how does this leader have the power to keep everyone in line despite their frustrations and desire for change? The answer, specifically in Arab society, is that he is the one who signs important certificates, such as marriage and land ownership documents, and serves as the link between the clan’s members and people in power.
These figures have many tools at their disposal to enforce control such as punishment, shame, and alienation. What he says goes. If you want to be successful, you want this leader on your good side; so even if you want to see change in your community, you know you cannot pursue it because then the leader will use one of his tools to put you back in line, and you will lose favor in the community. So, you keep your head down, stay in the lines. There is no relationship of conversation, understanding, empowerment, or dialogue in most cases.
Many times, young people and women grow frustrated. For women, if there is even the slightest infraction in their behavior, the consequences are severe and sometimes lead to honor killing. In the past, honor killings related to sexual behavior outside of marriage but now increasingly can be used as a tool for other infractions of the status quo. So, what do young people do? They turn to religious radical groups to bring change. Sadly, in the end, they find themselves in another patriarchal system that doesn’t really bring change.
Another way the millennial generation tries to bring change in their society is through revolutionary movements like the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, similarly to joining radical groups, the youth find that this also doesn’t work well in the end. They end up, in some cases, worse off than before the revolution. The final way we see this generation respond to the patriarchal structure is to detach and withdraw from social engagement. They give up. They attempt to immigrate to another country or form other groups within the society that don’t engage with the establishment. This is a recipe for future social upheaval.
Bearing all of this in mind, we must not overlook the structure that stands in the way of change and reconciliation in our local communities here: the patriarchal system. Many people think the obstacles to reconciliation lie mainly in political or religious systems and are unaware of the patriarchal system that stands adamantly against a change in the status quo, including reconciliation and peacemaking. This is one of the biggest problems for the millennial generation when it comes to wanting change and reconciliation in their society.
I find it very interesting that in the book of Acts, we find an alternative leadership system that is not built on seniority, birthright, or family or religious affiliation. In Acts 6, we see how the early community of believers were forming a different kind of leadership structure. The disciples became aware of a need in the community: the widows “were being neglected in the daily distribution.” The disciples called the wider community of believers and charged them to select a few people with good character, who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to take care of the widows. Their role wasn’t to keep people in line or preserve the status quo, but to serve the most vulnerable in their community.
Leaders in our community should follow this Biblical model of servant leadership across generation and gender, built around ethical and moral principles, not built around position and control. They must challenge and transform any structure that causes discrimination or abuse or prevents empowerment of young people to positions of leadership. In the past, the patriarchal system in the Middle East may have served society well but now it stands in the way of solving the various challenges we face. We must build for our future a different structure of social order that creates understanding between leaders and the community in order to build a better society.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D