Experts from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) discuss the meaning of the term "rule...
Salam Shabab Demonstrating the Value of Diversity Among Iraqi Youth
Salam Shabab, a reality competition TV series for Iraqi youth that provides an entertaining platform for a much-needed message of unity and peacebuilding, will be launching its second season of programming later this year after a first season that, according to new research, successfully encouraged viewers to embrace Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity.
The program is also receiving international recognition. On June 6, it was awarded the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Special Prize 2012 at the Prix Jeunesse, the leading international competition for children's and youth television, in Munich, Germany. The award honors a youth program that "convincingly promotes a better understanding of different cultures" and encourages open-minded communication "in the spirit of true partnership."
The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) provides funding and the peacebuilding framework for Salam Shabab (Arabic for "Peace Youth"), but the production, direction and participants in the show are, as USIP senior program officer Theo Dolan puts it, "Iraqi from top to bottom."
"This is an organic program about instilling in Iraqi youth self-confidence, respect for diversity, civic action and citizenship," said Dolan, who has worked with Iraqi production partners on Salam Shabab since 2009. "This is about reaching out to a disaffected base of the population, some of whom will be the next leaders."
The factors behind the collective traumas and alienation of Iraqi youth are not difficult to identify: a lengthy and brutal dictatorship under the regime of Saddam Hussein, multiple wars and years of internal, sectarian violence and terrorism. Nearly half of Iraqis are 18 years of age or younger. Sensing that nobody in power listens to them, many Iraqi young people have taken on an attitude of "defeatism and distrust of politics," as Dolan suggested, citing an Iraqi government study, in a January 2011 USIP PeaceBrief.
The series' Iraqi producer, Hussam Hadi, appeared at a January 25 Institute event and echoed the concern. "There is not a lot of focus on the youth in Iraq, and this is a fact," he said. Hadi likened the show to an effort at "rebuilding community," adding, "Salam Shabab is not just a reality show. It's talking about the dream of any Iraqi…from the perspective of youth."
The first season, with nine episodes, aired from October to December of last year on Saturday afternoons on four channels, including Iraqi state television, Al Iraqiya, and across the region on the satellite network SpacePower. Youths 14-18 years of age from six Iraqi provinces gathered in Erbil for unscripted competitions. With the composition of teams mixed in terms of home regions, ethnicities and religions and gender, they competed through the series in sport, mental challenges, short films and performance arts. The winners became "Ambassadors of Peace" who represented Iraqi youth in front of Iraqi parliamentarians.
USIP worked with Iraqi educators, youth media experts and youth organizations to develop a peacebuilding curriculum that provided the foundation for the overall design of the series and its competitions. The aim is to help strengthen Iraqi youth in four key areas: self-confidence, sense of shared community, awareness of civil rights and responsibilities and an open-minded respect for diversity. "How do we give them a voice?" asked Brett Pierce, a consultant and co-executive producer of Salam Shabab and a 15-year veteran of Sesame Workshop, creators of the pathbreaking, curriculum-based television series for children. Salam Shabab provides "a structure by which we can release their voice," Pierce said at the USIP forum in January.
Salam Shabab also maintains an active social-networking website at www.salamshabab.com. The program's Facebook fan page has nearly 10,000 fans, with about 400 joining each week. On a typical week, 400-600 teens are actively engaging with the page. Iraqi young people who are 15-25 years old constitute the largest part of online community members, though many more are joining the conversation from such countries as Egypt and Jordan.
USIP commissioned an independent evaluator, Harvest Research Group, to assess viewers' reactions to the first year of program. Using both a survey and a focus discussion with youths before and after screenings, Harvest found that the participants gave Salam Shabab a positive 7.78 appeal rating out of a maximum of 10. For most Iraqi teens who were asked, it was the first time they had seen a television show featuring peers coming from different regions, sects and religions working together on a common goal.
Harvest found that in comparing pre- and post-viewing attitudes, some—but not all—of the series' goals moved in direction that was hoped for. One—the diversity goal—saw statistically significant movement that, as Harvest's report stated, "reflects attitudinal shifts away from perceptions of difference, and closer to perceptions of similarity." After watching Salam Shabab, Iraqi youths were significantly more likely to think that Arabs and Kurds are similar in their behavior; that Sunni and Shi'a are alike in their conduct and morals; and that Muslims and Christians are similar in their politics and personal goals.
"I think Salam Shabab is unique with regard to both the target audience and operating environment, as Iraq is not an easy place to work. The project successfully brings together youth from across a very divided country, teaches them how to cooperate and models that positive behavior through the video programs," says Robin Nelson, a specialist on curricular youth television programming and a senior program officer with FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization. "Salam Shabab seems to strike the right balance between youth sensibilities and interest in contemporary culture while honoring traditional Iraqi culture."
For the teens on the show, the experience appears to have left a deep impact. Said one member of last year's winning team, "Enough war. Enough destruction. Enough racism. We want to live normally." A 16-year-old girl from Baghdad said, "I now know I have the power to create change. I have my own style." And a boy, 17, from Tikrit, said simply, "I was isolated before, but I overcame this. I want to spread peace in Iraq and to other countries that have a bad opinion of us."
The drift and disaffection of young people, though perhaps extreme in Iraq, is hardly unique to that country. With bulging youth populations, economic dislocation and sweeping political changes, the Salam Shabab model could be a good fit for several other nations in the Middle East and North Africa, said Dolan. "Salam Shabab can be replicated in other countries. It's a model that would appeal to kids anywhere, particularly these conflict-afflicted countries."
In awarding the UNESCO Special Prize, the Prix Jeunesse Foundation, founded in 1964 to promote quality television programs for young people worldwide, cited Salam Shabab as a program that "opens the space for personal experience and intercultural reflection" in the "fight against prejudices" that accompany conflict. It credited "the courageous production Salam Shabab" for promoting "a better understanding of others."
The second season of Salam Shabab has been filmed, and it is expected to air in September and October.
This story originally appeared on USIP.org on June 7, 2012.