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Seeds of change
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 05 - 2008

Nashwa Abdel-Tawab is stunned at how developments in the region have induced an unprecedented political realism in its youngsters
Arab kids are in their own Never-Neverland fighting against Captain Hook, immersed in a political game without a full grasp of its rules, tools and implications.
They are being brought up in an age of fiery disputes, sweltering wars and turbulent crises, denied their basic rights and made to inherit a miserable bulk of unsolved problems. Rather than having their childhood shielded, children in the Middle East region have been handed the baton early in the relay race -- they have become embroiled in politics at a young and critical age, on streets, at schools and on the net.
Last month, several hundred school children from 20 schools took part in a Hizbullah-organised demonstration outside the UN headquarters in Beirut to protest against Israel's deadly offensive in Gaza, where Israel's incursions into the Hamas- controlled strip have killed more than 120 Palestinians in one week. The children presented a letter to a UN representative calling on the world body to take action. They held pictures of children killed during the Israeli operations. "Where are children's rights?" asked a banner. "USA and Israel, the same face of terror," read another.
Never can we forget the images of Israeli children declaring their love for their Lebanese counterparts on the very missiles that were fired against them during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where their counterparts were dying en masse by the day.
In Egypt, underprivileged children stand in lines in front of bread-selling outlets for hours instead of playing or studying. They gather in front of cameras and journalists to express their distress over the bread shortage situation and its mishandling by the government, demanding good bread to eat.
Accompanied by their families, children of imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood protested in front of the Military Court building last week before the pronunciation of their fathers' final sentences. "Liberty for my dad," read a small banner carried by one child. Meanwhile, blogs have been set up by kids of different ages asking for freedom of expression and the release of their fathers.
On the stay-at-home strike of 6 April, kids were in on the action by not attending school on that day, well aware of the move's impetus of protest against soaring prices, bread crises and other national impasses.
Holland's film about the Prophet Mohamed, the cartoon about the prophet's wives and the republication of the Dutch cartoons provoked the anger of young Muslims as well.
A press conference was called by 65 students between the ages of seven and 12 belonging to a group named "Lovers of Allah" at the Modern Schools of Egypt (MSE) in New Cairo to announce their love of their prophet, their denunciation of the cartoons and their future plans.
"I'm really sad for what happened in Holland and Denmark, but I want to thank them, because they made me find out so many things I did not know about my prophet, which made me like him even more," said Sarah, a fifth grade student.
Farah, a first grade student, amazingly said, "I have been taught all my life not to call anyone names. Who do they think they are to speak badly of a prophet? I respect all prophets, I respect grown-ups, I respect myself and I want others to treat me the same."
Dina Sadek, a teacher and founder of the Islamic Studies and Character Building Section at the MSE, was the driving force behind the students' heightened awareness, with backing by the school principals and some teachers. "When the kids told me they were sad about the insulting cartoons and they wanted to do something positive, I understood that they had entered a political game and should acquire its tools, one of which is knowledge. I held a one- month informative programme about the prophet, his biography and sayings, in addition to international political developments and possible reaction scenarios on our side."
Sadek and her students reached the conclusion that there are a few things that Muslims should do, such as learning about Prophet Mohammed's life within a modern context and promoting dialogue on all levels. "Difference in opinion is expected, but tolerance is key to holding a successful dialogue."
Habiba, a fifth grader, added, "I want to tell the world about my prophet and advise them to read well before they judge. He respected his neighbours, hosted his guests well and accepted diversity of opinions."
Mohamed Khaled, a fourth grader, expressed his support in small poetic lines of love to the prophet:
"I love u prophet of Allah
You are dear to my heart
You are above my head and in my eyes
I wake up daily and pray for you, the prophet of Allah"
His friend, Mahmoud Emad, asked in remarkable prose for his age, "What makes the weak ask for his help? Why is the number of believers increasing and not decreasing? We should tell ourselves that behind the message is a great messenger."
"What happened in Europe shows their ignorance of Islam. They should really acquire more knowledge. Go and read. Grown-ups should not mix issues. If some Muslims are behaving badly for the time being, that doesn't mean Islam, with its great civilisation and human input for 1,000 years, is bad."
Mohamed Ahmed Ismail, a third grader and budding future activist, delivered a radical message to the Europeans. "We respect your prophets, so do the same with us. What do you gain when you insult others under the cover of freedom of expression? Would you like me to insult you and become your enemy? I can't return the insult. My prophet taught me that. So let's talk friendly or leave us alone."
In the meantime, nine-year-old Amina wrote a letter addressed to the Dutch ambassador and delivered it to the embassy's security guard:
"I am a pupil at a school near your embassy. I'm writing this letter to tell you how sad I am about the insult of our prophet PBUH in the latest film. In my opinion, the freedom to express your thoughts without oppression is important, but this right of freedom implies the existence of a responsibility. It mustn't be used against other people and important figures for others. If you insult my mother, I can't love you. I can't treat you normally. So imagine how it is when you insult our prophet, whom we love more than ourselves. If you insult Muslims, we won't be angry as much as when you insult our book and our prophet. I will boycott your products, although I like them. I hope you understand."
Another thoughtful letter was sent by her friend Rana. "We kids don't hate. But why don't you respect other people's faith? If you don't remember how, go back to school to learn; become a kid once more, because kids want peace. Kids don't hate."
Indeed, children generally do not have the loathing capacity that is more easily summoned by their elders. Instead, they are masters at imitating grown-ups and adopting their perspectives. Ali Suleiman, a psychologist working on a children's political education project, believes that children should be cautiously directed to politics or else their future political stand will be uncalculated and chaotic.
"Kids need to be educated on politics in its conceptual framework before introducing them to its forms, such as protests or boycotts. They have to understand their rights and duties, how to deal with and accept the other -- a friend, a teacher, a shopkeeper, a neighbour, a foreigner and a country. They have to learn to negotiate."
He said that children receive second-hand information from grown-ups around them, picking up attitudes and positions that are generally reactionary and extreme. "They hear the big talk and end up falling into the same traps their elders have fallen into," he said. "They should first be taught by well-informed and impartial grown-ups, and then they will be able to understand through critical thinking and acquire the empathy to make balanced decisions and take calculated actions even if they are new and daring. If they are not trained to see the third dimension of everything, they won't be skillful in the big game."
According to Huda Zakaria, a sociologist, political education is vital to the growth of society. "When our generation was young, we were not empty vessels. We participated in and talked about politics. Every young generation has to face its own political and cultural challenges depending on its era, history and circumstances. These challenges govern the way they handle the information they are given. And I think we are in the age when our youngsters are receiving a great deal of doubtful knowledge, which they are struggling to make sense out of."
Zakaria said that if, at a young age, children are receiving fragmented information rather than a holistic approach, they will end up having no clear vision and no good example to follow. They will ultimately inherit a burden of unsolved, complicated issues, which they will be confronted with when they grow up.
"But youngsters have a huge reserve of imagination, daring and idealism that we should tap into right now," Zakaria said. "They will grow up and ask questions and, if directed well through the flood of information they are receiving, they will come up with answers."
There is a rule in sociology, Zakaria said, that every regime gives birth to its antithesis. "There is no one answer to every question, no expected end for every beginning. Now that our children are unexpectedly on board the political public debate bandwagon, the real decisions will probably not be made by us now, but by them later."

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