Opinion: Conundrum of youth political engagement

Fazal Masood Malik and  Farhan Khokhar, Canada

A troubling dichotomy faces democracies today – there is a marked politics-based social media presence among youth, but at the same time, there is increasing disengagement of young people with the traditional political system. 

Voter turnout, party membership, and other measures of civic participation are trending downward among youth. This withdrawal threatens both the representation of young people’s interests and the health of democratic governance overall.  

Islam sees civic participation as a religious obligation. As stated in the Holy Quran: “And cooperate in righteousness and piety,” (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.3) and “[…] and do good to others as Allah has done good to thee.” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.77)

Youth engagement is necessary to drive change in developed and developing nations alike. In most of the OECD countries, the median age of the population is 40 or above. In the past decades, the pace of population ageing has already been substantial. This means that even a higher proportion of youth must come out and vote.  The impact was well known when a large number of youths joined Obama’s campaign, and an overwhelming two-thirds voted for him.

In developing nations, the median age ranges from a low of about 18 or less. Despite comprising a majority in less developed countries, youth civil participation there remains low; often blamed on endemic violence and injustice. Yet, as Muslims, we have an exemplary model in early Islamic communities for positive engagement despite adversity.

During his time in Mecca, our beloved Holy Prophet Muhammadsa faced violent persecution yet refused to abandon his faith or his people. Through patience and virtue, he served as a model to gradually transform society. True change comes not by disconnecting from society, but by working within existing structures.

Without civic input and oversight from youth, governments lack the incentive to address the problems that disproportionately impact young lives. The status quo remains unchanged.

This troubling dynamic appears within Muslim communities as well. Many youths have grown disillusioned with civic institutions over perceptions of corruption, injustice and unchecked Islamophobia. Yet walking away cedes power to status quo forces. The lasting change comes through engaged participation, not flipping the table.

Disconnected youth become prime targets for religious and secular extremist recruitment. Whether lured by preachers promising paradise or political fringe groups supporting violence, their frustration gets channelled destructively without moderate alternatives.

How fortunate are we to have a Prophetsa whose example teaches patient, peaceful reform! In his early days of Islam, the Prophetsa faced mockery, threats against his life, and the murder of some followers – oppression that might tempt reactive violence from today’s youth.

Through patience, ethics and positive civic engagement, the Holy Prophetsa resisted Meccan elites while also drawing marginalised groups and youth into a movement grounded in social justice and spiritual purpose. Gradually, he transformed hostile opponents into allies. Within two decades of facing hostility as outsiders, Muslims found themselves at the table, negotiating the governance of a wholly transformed Mecca.

To bring about a change, the youth must engage with flawed civic institutions rather than retreat into echo chambers of outrage. Women, immigrants, working-class youth and racialised minorities show ever lower engagement compared to their peers. Progress requires the unglamorous work of organisation, coalition-building, and willingness to communicate across lines of presumed difference – virtues that are already displayed in fragmented ways. Consolidating the civic power of youth will pave the road for their generation to sit at tables of political power in the years ahead.

Here, Muslim community leaders must model the Holy Prophet’ssa conviction that marginalised voices deserve positions of influence. He elevated the youth and the disenfranchised. Hazrat Bilalra, an African former slave, became the first muezzin to call believers to prayer. Usama ibn Zaydra, just a child during the early days of Prophet Muhammad’ssa ministry, later commanded battalions.

Hence, even where legal rights are denied, Ahmadi Muslims strive to uplift society. But for those of us fortunate enough to live freely in democracies, civic participation becomes a sacred obligation. We must honour the democratic liberties so many of our Ahmadi brothers and sisters are barred from enjoying.

Future depends on YOUth!

Defeatism or withdrawal is not an option – too much is at stake. Climate disruption, racial violence, economic precarity, eroding human rights – youth stand at the frontlines of global threats past generations struggle to address.

The opportunity rests before the young: will they seize the civic mantle today’s times so desperately demand? For any who may have lost faith in the system’s capacity for justice, consider the words of the Holy Prophetsa: “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed.” When asked how one could help the oppressor, he responded: “Preventing him from oppressing others.” By this metric, there is no greater act of faith than seeking to reform society’s shortcomings from within.

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