Sunday, June 12, 2005

Jihad in Small Town America: Part IV of a Series

by Laura Mansfield

Vacation Bible School is a rite of summer throughout the American southeast. In the Bible Belt of the deep south, a couple of weeks after school lets out, the elementary school aged kids flock to their churches for a week of Bible Stories, crafts, and fun.

It’s changed a little since I was a child; some churches now schedule the sessions in the evenings to accommodate working parents. The curriculum has been jazzed up a little, and often they have themes like and even mascots. But for the most part, Vacation Bible School is still the same thing that many of us experienced as children.

For example. children at suburban Atlanta Peachtree Corners Baptist Church (where runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks was to have wed) will spend next week exploring a theme of “Ramblin’ Road Trip: Which Way Do I Go?”

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there is an Islamic equivalent.

I had the opportunity to spend an evening last week at one of these sessions, and I was amazed at what is being taught in this country to children between the ages of 5 and 10. The differences between a Vacation Bible School and the Islamic Summer Study Week were apparent from the moment I entered the door, starting with the dress code.

Kids at Vacation Bible School for the most part wear shorts, and t-shirts, although some of the girls wear cute little outfits from Gap Kids and Gymboree.

The youngsters at this Atlanta-area Islamic Center were required to wear Islamic dress, even though the air conditioning was only functioning at a minimal level and the temperature during the days rose into the high 80’s. The boys were clearly more comfortable that the girls; they wore navy pants, and white t-shirts or white polo shirts. Some of the boys wore longer, knee-length navy shorts.

The younger girls wore long navy pants, a long sleeve white cotton shirt, and a navy tunic. Even some of the youngest girls were wearing a white hijab (headscarf), although a hijab was optional for the girls until they reached the age of 10. Some of the older girls were wearing a long floor length skirt instead of long pants. According to the director, the girls who opted to wear pants were required to wear the knee-length sleeveless tunic over the pants and long sleeve white shirt so as to be dressed in a non-revealing manner.

I expressed surprise that the young girls especially were willing to wear the hijab, and the director suggested I ask some of the kids to explain their reasons.

Selwa, a cute little five year old with blonde curls escaping from under the headscarf to frame her face, told me “I like to wear it. My mommy wears it too.” I asked her what she liked about it. Her blue eyes were wide as she exclaimed “Cause then bad men won’t kidnap me and hurt me.”

Hosnia, who is 6 years old, explained in a very serious manner: “I’m Muslim. God says girls have to wear it.”

After a few more minutes of socializing while other students arrived, the rally began. The group filed into the large room where the rally was to be held. The boys were already sitting in rows on the floor near the front of the room. The girls sat in rows behind the men.

I asked the teacher who was sitting in front of me why the girls were at the rear, when the younger ones wouldn’t be able to see over the heads of the older boys without standing. Little Hosnia, who was sitting beside me, heard my question and whispered to me “we have to sit back here so the boys can’t look at our butts”. She burst out into giggles, but the teacher immediately told her to hush.

The director introduced the Imam from the mosque, who started the rally with a quotation from the Qu’ran in Arabic. The surah of the day, which would be the Islamic equivalent of the Bible Verse of the Day, Al Ikhlas. The imam translated the surah as:

Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;

And there is none like unto Him.

The Imam repeated it several times in Arabic, line by line, encouraging the children to repeat it with him. Shifting back into English, he told them that their task for the day was to memorize this 4-line surah.

He then began to explain the surah, and its importance. He told the children that this surah described the essence of Islam – that there is only one Allah, and that Allah has no children. Then, quite abruptly, he told the room full of children that this surah was what Muslims were dying for in Palestine, and Iraq, and Chechnya. He told them that the Christians were all doomed to eternal hell for the sin of “shirk”, or assigning partners or a son to God.

He ranted for around 10 minutes about the “kafirs” and how the ambition of these unbelievers used the name of Christ to work with the Zionists to kill all of the Muslims in the world.

Then, suddenly he shifted gears. He started discussing Jews and Zionists, explaining that they were the most hated creatures by Allah. He told the children that Allah in fact hated them so much that at one point he turned all the Jews into pigs and monkeys.

The focus shifted to politics again. The imam told the children to never forget the struggle of the Palestinians, who were only trying to regain their ancestral land, which has been their home for thousands of years. He told the story of Mohamed Durah, and explained to the audience how the 14 year old had been killed while “innocently going down the street with his father.” He emphasized that the killing was an unprovoked murder by the “Jewish sons of pigs and monkeys”. He reminded the children that the goal of every Christian and Jew was to kill every single Muslim, even the tiny babies.

The imam explained that although they are in America they have an obligation to help their fellow Muslims elsewhere in the world. He told the kids to save their quarters and dollars and bring them to the center each day, and at the end of the program they would send the donations to their Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine and Iraq.

At that point, he abruptly shifted back to the Surah of the Day. He offered several of the older boys the opportunity to recite the surah in front of the group.

Then he announced that the groups would go to their respective classes.

The classes were not coed; boys and girls were separated, even at the youngest ages. The classes were grouped according to age: Kindergarten and First Grade together, Second and Third Grade together, and Fourth and Fifth Grade together.

I chose to remain with the Kindergarten and First Grade class.

The teacher, Amina, was an American woman who grew up in South Georgia as a Southern Baptist named Tiffani. She married a Palestinian man while still in college at Georgia State University. She converted to Islam and dropped out of college when she got pregnant. She was now pregnant with her third child in as many years. Her husband had finished his graduate degree, and in three weeks she was returning with him to his home in the West Bank.

She explained to me that the first 45 minute session for the youngsters was to learn the phrase “Allah Akbar”. They started with a large coloring page with the words Allah Akbar written on it in Arabic. After they colored the page, they took turns reciting the phrase.

She told the kids how to determine when it was appropriate to shout “Allah Akbar”: intimes of great joy, when someone is martyred, or when the Zionists or Kafirs are attacked. She introduced a video, in Arabic, showing scenes from the West Bank, and told the kids to shout “Allah Akbar” when they thought they should.

The kids quickly got the message that when something blew up, or an Israeli soldier was shot that they should shout Allah Akbar. I expressed my concern to Tiffani about children so young being exposed to such violent scenes. Tiffani/Amina assured me that the kids had been watching similar videos since they were two years old, and that they weren’t disturbed in the slightest by them.

Playground time was next. The younger girls joined the older kids on the playground. Although the boys and girls shared the same playground, there was a clear but unmarked demarcation between the sexes. If one of the boys accidentally kicked a ball into the girls section, one of the girls or teachers tossed it back. The boys weren’t allowed to come into the girls section at all.

While the girls played chase and hopscotch and other typical children’s outdoor games, the boys were playing what appeared to be some sort of combination of cowboys and Indians and GI Joe.

I wandered over closer to get a better look.

Sure enough the boys were playing jihad. While I watched from the sidelines, the boys drew lots to see who would act as the American airplane. The loser had to pretend he was an American airplane flying around, and then the other boys pretended to attack it by throwing Nerf balls. The “airplane” fell to the ground, and the other boys pounced on it. The “airplane” turned into a pilot and the boys “captured” him. They stood him against a wall, and formed a pretend firing squad. Instead of toy guns, the boys used their multifunctional Nerf balls to execute their prisoner, all the while yelling “Allah Akbar”.

The male teachers, most of whom were in their twenties, stood over at the side of the playground talking to each other, not paying any attention to the activities in which their students were engaged.

I noticed one boy standing over not to far from where I was standing, holding a box against his face. He appeared to be watching the other boys intently. I asked him, in English, what he was doing.

His answer? “I’m the camera man. I’m taping them.”

After playground time ended, the kids filed back into their classrooms for a snack, and then returned to the assembly hall for a final assembly before their parents picked them up.

As I left, I reflected upon the morning’s events. I wondered how many of the parents knew what their children were being taught in these sessions.

Did the parents approve or disapprove?

How many of these children will be making headlines over the next decade?

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