Jared Cohen, a 25-year-old Connecticut native, is part of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, a high-level squad of advisers to Condoleezza Rice. He recently spoke to ABC News about his travels in the Middle East, hanging out with Hizbollah, going to synagogue in Iran, and what he hopes to achieve with his new book, "Children of Jihad" (Penguin Books).
ABC NEWS: When did your travels begin and end?
JARED COHEN: I took my first trip to the Middle East in December 2004, and then would travel back and forth for two years while I was in graduate school. Then I joined the U.S. government in September 2006, and now I travel to the Middle East all the time — it's just a much safer version of what I used to do.
After 9/11, I think somewhere in the back of my head, I always just had this lingering curiosity of what the Middle East was like. So I went to Iran in December 2004. I wanted to look at the political opposition, the dissident groups, and the reformists. And all I had to do was get exposed to young people even a little bit in my first week there to realize that I had been trying to study the wrong opposition — that there was a much more interesting opposition in that country and all of these countries, which is that 60 percent of those in these countries who are under the age of 30 do things just like me as a young American.
ABC NEWS: What impressed you most about those young people that you ran into in Iran?
COHEN: I think what impressed me most about young people in Iran is just their resilience. No matter what's thrown at them, no matter how difficult things are, they just find a way to coexist and they find a way to be young people. The Iranian young people that I met refused to have their identities hijacked by either political entities or religious entities. I think the Iranian young people have really emerged as the de facto opposition in that country in the sense that they brought about a number of social and recreational changes by virtue of what they've been able to do by mass action in the pursuit of comfort in that country.
ABC NEWS: You say that they embrace their youth. What exactly do they do? How do they behave? What are the parallels?
COHEN: Well, there's a chapter in "Children of Jihad" called Democracy after Dark, which takes place in Iran, where I talk about how as soon as I went out with young Iranians for the first time after the sun went down. It's no different than the United States. Once the sun goes down and the parents are nowhere in sight, the girls wear very garish makeup and very fancy clothes, and the hijabs are pushed all the way back, and the kids drink, and they make alcohol in their bathtubs and in their sinks and there's rampant drug use, and the parties feel more like a fraternity party than they do a party that you'd expect in the Islamic Republic. And they do drag racing down the streets, they use Bluetooth to arrange for illicit trysts. They crumple up pieces of paper with their phone numbers on it and throw it in each other's windows, and it's really a remarkable scene. It's them expressing themselves. It's not that they're rambunctious and out of control, it's that every drop of alcohol they drink, every beat of Western music they listen to, everything they do that they're not supposed to do, whether they realize it or not, they're doing it, in part, in defiance of the regime.
ABC NEWS: For the most part, in Iran, what do young people think about America?
COHEN: Iran is very much an anomaly from the rest of the Middle East, at least the countries that I've been to in the sense that I think you probably have the most pro-American population in the region. In part the reason I think that's the case with Iran is that the youth population is guided by a core principle which is we'll love anything our government hates and we'll hate anything our government loves. So naturally, the United States is kind of the ultimate example of what the regime there dislikes. But if you look elsewhere in the region, I think that there's overwhelming discontent with the U.S. government and U.S. policy and so forth.
I would struggle to find any majority of young people in any country in the Middle East who actually like their government. A lot of young people, likewise, are not particularly enthused about the fact that a very small minority of their religion has become violent extremist and is basically claiming to represent an entire religion when 99.99 percent of Muslims are part of a very peaceful, accepted religion in the world.
ABC NEWS: What do they think of America and about our policy?
COHEN: I find that young people in the Middle East are actually extremely sophisticated and distinguishing between governments, people and religions. They're the first generation socialized with high prevalence of satellite TV, mobile phones and Internet, so they know what the world is like out there.
On the U.S. foreign policy front, they only care about it so much. At the end of the day, that's not going to get them a job. That's not going to give them dignity. That's not going to give them belonging and opportunity and money. It's just a way to scapegoat all their other troubles.
ABC NEWS: So day to day, what are their headaches?
COHEN: I think it comes down to a couple of things. The fact that the economies are terrible. The fact that they get degrees and they can't find jobs. The fact that they have this fascination with new and innovative uses of technology and a lot of these governments do everything they can to shield these kids from it. The fact that there's rampant corruption, and the fact that they have restrictions on their civil liberties.
If you look at young people in the Middle East, I always found that they need satisfaction in two realms: in the education realm and in the recreation realm. And they're not satisfied with either right now. The public schools are terrible. The universities — even if they're good — there are no jobs afterward . In the recreational front, there's not a lot for these kids to do. So they've already decided that they don't like the educational and recreational opportunities that they're getting, so they're starting to look for it elsewhere. Right now, if you want to get ahead in life, if you want a better education, if you want more recreation, you gravitate toward one of two entities that provide them for you, which are religious entities or political entities.
ABC NEWS: And where does their frustration go?
COHEN: It depends. All young people experience some form of humiliation. You get left out, you get picked on, you don't get a job, you get in trouble at school. Young kids in the Middle East experience that, too. A lot is left to chance. What's their relationship with their family? Geographically, what mosques do they live closest too? Who do they happen to meet by chance on the street? If the stars are aligned to the kid's misfortune, he'll meet the wrong person, he won't have the family support, he'll be particularly susceptible, and he might, worst case scenario, be recruited into a violent extremist group.
There may be this vast number of unemployed young people around the Middle East if jobs aren't created, but you better believe that there's no shortage of extremist groups out there that are already thinking about their own solutions to the employment problem, that are already thinking how they can pray on soon-to-be unemployed young people, that are already sort of developing their strategies for how they can be the ones giving young people opportunities.
ABC NEWS: There were young Hizbollah members you encountered, ones that you went with to McDonald's. Were you surprised to see them out at clubs and doing things that were fairly normal?
COHEN: Of course. In "Children of Jihad," I have a chapter called The All Night Party of God, which goes over my shock at seeing these kids at clubs. I don't think that the majority of actual members of Hizbollah can be found out at clubs, but I found some in there. The same ones that told me they would never do that — they were out trying their luck on Christian girls.
ABC NEWS: You waited until you were in a McDonald's to tell your Hizbollah friends that you're Jewish. How did they take that?
COHEN: Well, it was interesting. I wasn't really sure how they would react. How would you feel if you were a Jewish kid from Connecticut and all of sudden you were about to tell Hizbollah you were Jewish? I figured no safer place to do it than McDonald's. It was interesting. I remember one of them put his hand on my shoulder and said, "We don't care that you're Jewish, we don't care you're American. We hate the American government and we hate the Israeli government, but Jewish people and American people have done nothing to us." And then one of them went as far as to say, we don't really have Jewish people in Lebanon, but if we did we might even be friends with them, you know, as long as they weren't Zionists. That was kind of a shock to me that they distinguish between the governments, people and religion.
ABC NEWS: There was another intersection of your identity with your travel when you stumbled upon the Jewish community in Iran. How was that community doing?
COHEN: I was actually really surprised. The Jewish community in Iran is about 25,000. And it's a very Orthodox community. What's interesting is, you go into the synagogues and you have women wearing hejabs because it's still Iran. You walk into the synagogue, and you still felt like you were in a Muslim country. So that was interesting.
People said that I was crazy for going to synagogue in Iran. There's nothing uncomfortable about doing that. There's nothing uncomfortable about looking for the Jewish community in Iran. The Iranian Constitution actually mandates that at least one member of the parliament is actually Jewish, so there's actually a Jewish representative in the Iranian government, by law.
ABC NEWS: Did you feel that it was a community doing well?
COHEN: It's a community that's sort of found its niche. I'm sure it's not comfortable to be Jewish in Iran. There are signs all over the country that say "Death to Israel" and "Down with Israel." But that being said, I think, you know, Iranian Jewish people have sort of found their space in that country.
ABC NEWS: What do you wish young people in America knew about the Middle East?
COHEN: What I hope and one of the main reasons I wrote "Children of Jihad" was because on paper as a young American Jew, I'm probably the last person that should be able to get along with people from different backgrounds in the Middle East. And the reality is, I found that youth culture there was more similar to me than it was different. And where it was different was more interesting. We could learn from each other.
If I could have my best-case scenario, it would be for young people to read the book and think, wow, I can do something as an individual because what this author is telling me is that young people in the Middle East are just a mouse click away, they're just a Facebook connection away, they're just an instant message away, they're just a text message away.
ABC NEWS: Common misconceptions about young people in the Middle East?
COHEN: That they're a potential threat, not a potential opportunity. You know, that they're a bunch of gun-toting masked militants, shouthing "Allahu Akbar." The reality is the ones that become militants, they're broken souls with dangerous toys. And the ones who aren't, who are 99.99 percent of the population, are concerned with the same types of things that we are. They do the same types of things that we do. They just are being given their alternatives and their opportunities by people that are trying to hijack their socialization process and make them another identity other than youths.
ABC NEWS: The book is called "Children of Jihad," but most of the people you described, the young people, don't actually seem to have jihad on their mind. Why the title?
COHEN: There's two reasons why I chose that title, and it goes back to the two types of audiences I'm writing for. I'm writing, on the one hand, for audiences who have misperceptions of what young people are in the Middle East. It's a play on those misperceptions. They'll pick up the book, seeing that title, "Children of Jihad," and think it's a book about the youth of the Middle East and not think anything of it.
The second audience I write for is an audience in the Middle East. I think it's important for people in the Middle East to hear a young Jewish person from America describing the society as I try to do in "Children of Jihad." And the same way that I played on the misperceptions that a lot of people here in America have, I'm trying to play on the misperceptions about what they might expect from somebody with my background. Now, here's another book by a Jewish American, calling us all a bunch of fanatics, and then open the book and find that I'm actually describing young people in the Middle East as anything but children of Jihad.
Theodore May contributed to this article.