By Minderjeet Kaur and Ili Shazwani
Against the backdrop of a new Middle Eastern war, a viral video and series of photos showing Malaysian students and teachers brandishing toy firearms while waving Palestinian flags at more than one public school ignited a public backlash on Friday.
The images, in which students could be seen wearing keffiyah scarves and holding up pro-Palestinian signs – including a pro-Hamas banner in at least one photo – fanned a controversy a few days before the government here launches Palestine Solidarity West, from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3, at all educational institutions nationwide.
Amid the fighting between Israel’s military and Palestinian Hamas militants, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government is promoting this program, it said, “to teach humanitarian values such as empathy and to defend the rights and freedom of others.”
His administration has been on the defensive this week, as some critics accused the Ministry of Education of trying to politicize the nation’s schools over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through introducing the solidarity week.
The video appeared to be from a public school in Pahang, the third largest state in Peninsular Malaysia and about 125 km (77 miles) from the capital Kuala Lumpur. The photographs shared on social media appeared to be from a school for special needs children in Selangor.
In response to questions about these images, Anwar said the government would monitor all related activities during the week, but he did not state how that would be accomplished.
“We need to control that. We’ve discussed it in the Cabinet. First, we encourage [Palestine Solidarity Week] but do not force schools to do it,” Anwar told reporters.
Malaysia, one of the two largest mainly Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, does not recognize the State of Israel.
In recent weeks, Anwar has strongly condemned Israel’s bombing and siege of the Gaza Strip in the wake of a wave of deadly surprise attacks carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7. But so far, his government has refused to reciprocate in condemning atrocities committed by the militants against some 1,400 Israeli civilians during those attacks, according to reports.
As of Friday, more than 7,300 Palestinians had been killed in airstrikes by Israel and the siege of Gaza that followed the initial Hamas attacks, the Associated Press reported, citing figures frm the Health Ministry in that Palestinian enclave.
On Friday, Anwar also maintained his stance about the new war in the Middle East, saying the Palestinian people’s rights needed to be restored and Israel military attacks must be halted.
“Apart from that, the distribution of humanitarian, food and medical aids have to be expedited and made the top priority at this moment,” Anwar said.
Following up with a Facebook post, Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek said the ministry had taken into account concerns expressed by Malaysians about the social media posts.
“I would like to emphasize that the solidarity week was aimed at instilling human values which include human rights, peace, harmony and global peace,” she said in the post.
“Therefore, the ministry will not condone any extremism, radicalism and violent activities especially those involving weapon replicas, icons and symbols containing provocation or confrontation elements,”
Civil society groups in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo island, had previously voiced disagreement with the ministry’s instruction for all government education institutions to observe a week in support of the Palestinian cause.
“The collective of NGOs is deeply concerned over this controversial event by a simple administrative ruling without discussions on its appropriateness at Parliament or without consulting the parents. The proposed action has not been adequately considered for its long-term impact,” the groups said in a statement.
“We are looking at the seriousness of dragging school children in becoming part of the global, grown-up adult world of protests,” said Peter John Jaban of Global Human Rights Federation, adding that children should not be “getting embroiled in this Middle East crisis.”
The statement included a warning regarding a recent incident in Malaysia, where young students stomped on an Israeli flag at their school. Jaban said the school was sowing seeds of hatred in the minds of impressionable students.
On Facebook, activist and lawyer Siti Kassim said the solidarity week in schools had already gone out of control.
“Sorry to say, he opens the gate, the devils have escaped,” she said of Anwar’s decision to create the program.
In July, Malaysian police said they had found a bomb in the undercarriage of Siti’s car. She said this was one reason she objected to solidarity week in schools.
“Are we training Jihadis now in our schools? What’s with the weapons and all?” she asked, referring to the toy guns.
The father of an 8-year-old autistic child told BenarNews on Friday that teachers at the boy’s school deleted all the photos that they had shared with parents from their recent Palestinian solidarity activity.
“I asked the teachers why and they said the Education Ministry was not happy with it,” said the man who asked to remain anonymous over concern for his son’s safety.
The father of three later told BenarNews that he knew the event would not go well when he saw the school’s request that children wear white T-shirts and to bring a toy gun with them. He admitted that he did not object to the request openly.
Instead, he said, he did what he thought was the right thing at the time. He sent his son to school in normal sports attire and without a toy gun.
“The reason I did not speak out was because I did not want my son becoming a target. He needs to be in the school as it’s the only available school for him that close to home,” the man said.
A member of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) said the ministry made a mistake in instructing schools to have children become involved in a foreign policy issue at a young age.
“Students are being used. The government shouldn’t impose on students the way it wants them to think. Such an order from the top reeks of politics in education,” Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said.
Azimah blamed the education ministry for issuing a circular that was so vague, and said that the situation in some schools had gone out of control. She urged the government to stop the solidarity week immediately before more damage was done.