Early socialization and learning are integral components for a child’s development which leave a lasting impression on their behaviour and character. As an individual who was born and spent his entire childhood in the Middle East, I have come to the realization that much of what Middle Eastern children learn at their earliest and most vulnerable stages is inherently violent.
While the topic of education and culture contributing to violence in the Arab World may be considered taboo to speak about, its importance cannot be overlooked. Change cannot be made through silence, necessitating the discussion of this topic. I first discussed the idea with key Middle Eastern political figures in 2014 however educational reform was not viewed as a priority in comparison to political reform.
Prior to reading this article, it must be understood that I am not suggesting this is applicable to the entire Arab world and all Arab children. Further, I am not suggesting that all those who experience what I discuss below are violent individuals. Of course one’s childhood experiences and upbringing vary from person to person and are comprised of many contributing factors. Middle Eastern families greatly cherish their children and raise them based on what they believe is best for the child to succeed.
In this article, what I am suggesting is that in general there are specific stages many Middle Eastern children experience over the course of their childhood and these stages create a specific negative discourse, representing a component of why the Middle East is rife with turmoil, extremism and violence.
Within Arab families, one of the first words a baby learns aside from Mama and Baba (Dad) is the word “ded deh” (to hit). Relatives, friends and older siblings will play with young children by lightly tapping them on the hand saying “ded deh.” While this is only meant to be a game to play with the child, the problem that arises is the child begins to realize how he/she can use his/her hands to hit others. Many Arab children thus, grow up with a tendency to hit anything and everything around them. Once infants become mobile through crawling, parents or older siblings teach the child to pull and roughly handle pets, especially cats.
Overall, when it comes to interacting with domesticated animals, children are taught not to be gentle but to dominate the animal. This reinforces the idea that you should have no mercy towards other living beings. Furthermore, as soon as children begin to go out into the neighbourhood and play with others, they have a tendency to use rocks, sticks and metal objects to throw at cats and birds. Cats in the Middle East commonly fill the streets and many are feral. Throwing items at cats or birds, turns into a game where it is viewed as good among friends if one is hit. Even among friends, games largely consist of wrestling, hitting and the use of impromptu weapons.
School, a prominent part of a child’s development, represents the crux of the problem of the inherited violence in the Middle East. As opposed to a place of learning, school is a place of agony for many children.
Generally speaking, at rural public schools children are either regularly engaged in or exposed to fights among their classmates. It is common for boys to have a one- on-one match as soon as school is let out for the day. Perhaps most alarming about school however, is the educational material and curriculum presented. In one word the curriculum can be described as exclusive. The curriculum can be viewed as being against inclusiveness and pluralism. Topics often contain killing, slashing and hate. For example, the ancient religious crusades and the colonial era are highlighted and manipulated to incite anger towards other races, religions and cultures.
Moreover, the term “infidels” is continually emphasized, leaving children trusting that they are their enemy. Thus, the promotion of a one-way ideology and national education system is achieved. Students become the receivers of information. They do not contribute nor give their opinion. Students are taught to never question the teacher. Should a student disagree with their teacher, they are crossing a line, a line that is considered forbidden and very disrespectful.
Some teachers use corporal punishment and other harsh forms of discipline, including sticks and objects like rubber tubes. Different techniques are used based on age and physical attributes of the child. Thus punishment techniques come in different forms and packages for different reasons. The most prominent reasons for punishment are the child did not finish their homework, such as memorize a 1-3 page poem, the child improperly wrote numbers or letters or the child was late for school. Some teachers choose to hold the child from their sideburns or slap the child’s face or neck, aside from random hits from a stick over their body.
As a result, children become afraid to go to school from an early age, come to dislike learning and become prone to dropping-out. Moreover, children can grow up bitter about their experiences in school and desire revenge for things that go wrong in their life. Not only is this harmful for the child’s development, but it contributes to larger issues in the community as children can grow up not having learned some of the most basic skills, effectively limiting their employment opportunities and community engagement.
Additionally, children are taught to believe that sources of authority are allowed to enact violence over those they are responsible for. As students continually see their teachers disciplining students with violence, the idea that violence can be enacted by those wielding power becomes normalized. Perhaps this is why corruption and inequality are able to ensue, without large public outrage and dissatisfaction. As a result, children do not learn to think outside of the box nor to question those in charge.
Something important to note here is that these topics contradict Islam and represent cultural beliefs, not religious ones. Wholly, these discussions are present from grades 1 to 12 and even in university institutions.
While university is supposed to represent a more refined learning environment, there is violence and the same close-minded thinking. Students, who believed they would be exposed to a different learning style, find themselves in the same situation, the same environment and at times, a more extreme one. For example, in some countries in the Middle East, fights are commonplace between groups of students over trivial matters. While in the classroom, there is no opportunity for debate, discussion or open questioning with the teacher.
Looking at these behaviours from a wider standpoint, violent tendencies are reinforced upon each other creating a specific idea of what is appropriate and how sources of authority should act. After all of this information and learning children are exposed to – the hitting, the killing, the exclusion – it is easy to see why peace is elusive.
Thus it can be argued that the answer why there is sectarian violence and why thousands of young individuals carry out extremist ideology partly be found in the information children are constantly receiving. If you grow up receiving information focused on violence, killing and hatred, how can one not expect the result to be individuals disposed to violence?
Where does change start?
Change needs to occur within all facets of society to combat what has been discussed above. The family unit needs to socialize children to be kind to other living beings such as pets and feral cats. School must become an institution where questioning, debating and discussions are welcomed. Teachers need to be viewed by children as neutering individuals and not be afraid to answer a question incorrectly.
One way to facilitate this could be implementing a program for teachers. Often there is no requirement for teachers college in the Middle East. If a recent graduate has a university diploma, they can become a teacher. No teachers college means there is no preparation for the teacher and the cycle of what they experienced as a child at school is simply perpetuated. They teach like their teacher did, and thus they hold the same mentality that children must be physically disciplined in order to learn.
Moreover, for those already teaching, a “rehabilitation” program could be implemented where teachers participate in workshops that highlight the harms caused by harsh discipline. A key component of change must also include the banishment of the stick and physical punishment in school. The use of the stick has received much attention in recent years from Middle Eastern policy makers.
It must not be overlooked that the extremists who fight abreast with ISIL and the supporters who show sympathy and justification for their actions at one point were children. They have been immersed in an environment, an education and cultural system that has indoctrinated certain mentalities. These individuals represent the same group of children that have never been able to engage in critical thinking, open debate or questioning of superiors.
If one asks an average Middle Eastern individual about their biggest foe, they would cite unemployment, poverty, corrupted officials, and autocratic leaders. These are the primary reasons why people are joining this draconian group, hoping it will provide the conduit necessary to eliminate inequality and distribute justice.
There is a verse in Quran that states, “Whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”.
This should be the benchmark of what the Middle East should strive towards. Discussions, actions and teaching surrounding violence, killing and hatred are all counterproductive to a prosperous, efficient and content society. Should Middle Eastern countries really want to reform their societies and combat extremism, changes need to begin that effect one of the most vulnerable, but intellectually competent groups in society – children.
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Sohaib Gabsis is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and currently sits on the G78 Board of Directors. He holds a B.A. in Human Right and a B.A. Honours in French and English literature. Previously, Sohaib worked with the UN – International Labour Organization on the Syrian refugees crisis in Amman, and later worked on the ILO-IPEC programme.
Featured Photo by Sohaib Gabsis