COLUMN: Where childhood martyrdom is ‘in,’ critical thinking is ‘out’

Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise

Jenny Newman, Staff Columnist

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A Jenny for your thoughts: In Palestinian YouTube video, childhood has no room for children

“When we die as martyrs, we will go to heaven…”

These words, sung in Arabic to a very catchy tune by a young girl who couldn’t be more than 10 years old, brought new meaning this summer to the idea of indoctrinating children. They are the lyrics for a song and video a song and video put out by an Arab children’s choir and distributed by a Jordanian-owned production company.

The song, “When We Die As Martyrs,” is now one of the most popular in the Arab world, with hundreds of thousands of hits on Youtube.com, and has racked up millions of views on Arabic-language websites.  It was produced by a company called, ironically, “Birds of Paradise.”

Its intent is to highlight the merit of martyrdom among children, essentially saying that no one is too young to die for God. According to the translation on screen ((http://tinyurl.com/BPwhenwedie) at one point in the video, the children sing, “No, don’t say that we are young, this life has turned us into grown-ups.”

Videos like “When We Die as Martyrs” promote jihad (holy war) among very young audiences and spark countless spin-offs, becoming household names in Arabic communities.

In fact, another wildly popular Birds of Paradise video features a teenager throwing a Molotov cocktail at Israeli soldiers, while Muhammad Bashaar — the one adult cast member in “When We Die As Martyrs” — sings “Victorious, as promised by Allah!”

Why are these videos so widely made and distributed?

That answer lies in the kind of education that the children who watch these videos are getting, and the agenda of the people who design and implement it. And guess who’s paying for that education? According to USA today, over one billion U.S. dollars will be spent on education alone in the Palestinian Territories in the year 2010 (http://tinyurl.com/BPUSATODAY).

What are those dollars paying for?

The organization UNICEF’s (the United Nations Children’s Fund) current report on education in the Palestinian territories (meaning the Gaza Strip and Palestinian Authority’s West Bank) reports “Alarming low marks” in the subjects of math and science as well as Arabic, to the point where there will soon be few qualified people to teach these subjects.

UNICEF also noted that classrooms in Gaza are overcrowded, with poor quality teachers and little if any social media (such as computers or interactive materials) involved.

In other words, children aren’t really learning anything. A strong education is the foundation for having a logical and reasonable world view, which these children lack.

Also, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, or UNHCR, has found in its annual report that education in the occupied Palestinian territories has suffered from a combination of bad internal management and the surrounding conflict (http://tinyurl.com/BPUNHCR).

“Some Palestinian schools teach hatred of Israel,” reads the education section of their report. “Israeli military closures, curfews, and the West Bank security barrier restrict access to Palestinian academic institutions. Israeli authorities have at times shut universities, schools have been damaged during military operations…”

However, the PA – which started reforming its education system in 2002 – has not been entirely stagnant. In a report issued by the U.S. Congress, it was noted that the Authority’s Education Ministry had banned schoolchildren from participating in violent demonstrations and ended the practice of hanging posters in school buildings of “martyrs” killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But despite the report’s note of some progress in education, it raised several significant concerns.

“The shift from an authoritarian curriculum that emphasizes memorization toward a curriculum that focuses on critical thinking has fostered contentious debate amongst Palestinian educators, policymakers and religious figures,” states the report, which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/2cbhpbc.

“Many people feel that the PA Ministry of Education, fearful of a negative public response, did not fully incorporate the standards of critical thinking in religious education units,” the report continues.

In sum, these children are being taught extremely sensitive topics that will shape their views on war, peace, nationhood, and personal and religious identity without being given the tools or the environment to contextualize it.

Meanwhile, on the Israeli side of the conflict, videos like “When We Die as Martyrs” do appear, though they exist in an entirely different vein of thinking.

Around the time that “When We Die as Martyrs” went viral in the Arab world, the Israeli political satire website Latma TV released the parody video “We Con the World,” set to the tune of “We Are the World,” which responded to widespread outrage over the tragic Turkish flotilla incident in May (http://tinyurl.com/BPflotillachair).

“We’ll make the world abandon reason,” one of the adult choir members sings in the refrain, wearing a kaffiyeh and brandishing a fake knife. “We’ll make them all believe that the Hammas is Mama Teresa – we are peaceful travelers, with guns and our own knives…”

In contrast to “When We Die as Martyrs, “We Con the World” is put out by an entirely adult cast, and hangs more on the side of political satire than religious propaganda. It is very clearly meant to be a joke – the attitude is more like the cast of Saturday Night Live than of a serious video – though many on both sides found it offensive. And it enjoys a similar popularity to “When We Die As Martyrs,” with several million views on Youtube.com.

In the Palestinian video, the chorus of the song, repeated several times and by different children, states:  “My life and my blood are for her [Palestine’s] sake.”

I’m not sure which is worse – the uncompromising intent to engage in martyrdom that the lyrics portray, or the fact that the children singing seem perfectly happy about giving up their lives.

There is nothing wrong with an encouragement of national or even religious identity in the classroom. Certainly those things are part of our education at Shalhevet!   But a separation of religious and secular education also needs to exist – and religious units need to be taught by teachers who can incorporate critical analysis in their classrooms.

In the Palestinian territories, the full jump needs to be made to a curriculum based on critical thinking and analysis, rather than just the halfhearted and stumbling steps taken by the PA.  That curriculum needs to be designed by experts in education, and fully implemented with progress checks at regular intervals.

Discussion of martyrdom in any classroom should be offered only to older students capable of understanding it as a political as well as extremist phenomenon, and not a social norm. Meanwhile, Israel needs to recognize the effects of closing schools, and the difficulties of crossing the security fence between the PA and Israel proper where it pertains to education.

Without an education that teaches them to think and analyze the world around them, children are unable to put into context videos like “When We Die as Martyrs.” And so long as this kind of attitude is being fostered, peace will remain as elusive as a martyr’s childhood.

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