A new statement released by The Muslim American Society (MAS) Islamic Center in North Philadelphia states that the children appearing in a controversial video last month did not understand the Arabic words they were reciting, and all volunteers nearby who did know the language were not paying attention.
In the video uploaded to the MAS Philly Facebook page on April 22, children are seen dancing and lip syncing to a song known as the “revolutionaries’ anthem,” often played by Islamist groups. A few girls are also seen reciting words about using violence to retake the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“We will chop off their heads, and we will liberate the sorrowful and exalted Al-Aqsa Mosque,” one girl said. “We will lead the army of Allah fulfilling his purpose, and we will subject them to eternal torture.”
The statement reads that the volunteer regrets the song selection and has decided to no longer serve the community organization. The letter also apologizes for all harm the video caused to both the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“We would like to reiterate that we are deeply saddened to have hurt our partners in the Jewish community and beyond. We remain committed to working with our partners to pave a positive future for our community and increase our work with people from all walks of life,” the letter read. “Our interaction with our children is constructed on the Islamic values of mercy and justice. Anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry are foreign concepts to us and we are especially saddened that our beautiful children and community continue to face these accusations.”
News of the video went viral after a subtitled version was released on May 3 by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a watchdog group that translates content from Arabic and other languages. In response, MAS Philadelphia said in a May 3 email to the Jewish Exponent that the video had been improperly translated.
But others, such as Jacob Bender, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Philadelphia, said that MEMRI’s translation was accurate. MAS Philadelphia’s latest statement released on May 15 aims to explain and apologize for the video and discuss next steps taken in response.
The letter states the video was taken on April 17 at the sixth annual Ummah Day (ummah means community in Arabic). The event was held at organization’s building in Philadelphia in a space rented out by Al-Hidaya Mosque/Masjid. It was organized by community members and MAS volunteer aides to “celebrate the diversity of our community in a festive fashion.” Children danced and lip-synced to songs from 18 different countries during the two-hour program. One of the songs selected by a volunteer aide was from Palestine.
“The song that was selected was a popular one on YouTube, and the children merely danced along as the song played on the computer,” the statement reads. “The children did not understand this song as their command of Arabic is not advanced and neither did some of our aides. Other aides who know Arabic mention that in that hectic and festive day, they did not give a close ear to the song’s lyrics. The speech by the two older girls was likewise a selection that primarily sought to highlight the children’s capacity to read and project Arabic rhetoric; however, they have not yet mastered enough grammar to comprehend the words.”
In the wake of the controversy, MAS Philadelphia begin drafting a new set of standard operating procedures at its staff meeting on May 6. The organization also has enlisted CAIR-Philadelphia’s Executive Director Jacob Bender to conduct a training on Judaism and anti-Semitism for the entire staff, including aides and administrative personnel.
The statement said that MAS Philadelphia is interested in hosting programs with POWER: An Interfaith Movement and the Dialogue Institute. Other plans include setting up an advisory council that can review processes, monitor and recommend changes with the help of The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. Security measures will be stepped up in the wake of the New Zealand attacks and recent protests with the additional hiring of security personnel during Ramadan.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer said she appreciated the letter, describing it as detailed and thorough, having addressed a number of concerns community members raised. However, she was not satisfied with the explanation of how the course of events took place.
“We certainly understand that people make mistakes. However, the fact that adults and children did not understand what they were saying doesn’t serve either as an excuse or proper pedagogy,” Baron-Baer said. “The adults who were in the room, both the teachers and the others, needed to recognize that words like those are unacceptable in any language and at any time. It wasn’t the posting of the videos that was the wrong thing to do, it was the recitation of the words that shocked the community.”
Rabbi Batya Glazer, who heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said the May 15 statement was more comprehensive than the national MAS organization’s May 3 statement. She said it was understandable how the mistake could have occurred in the manner described. She added that the Muslim community is no threat to the Jewish community, and that the real outrage should be with the Palestinian song itself.
“I know there is some skepticism about it, [but] I think it makes sense. All of us at some point found ourselves saying Hebrew words that we didn’t understand so well because those were the words that were put in front of us,” Glazer said. “This community, it sounds like they made a terrible mistake. We should never be teaching children hate. This is not the message the community wanted to teach its children, it’s not the message this Muslim community wanted Greater Philadelphia to know about them. And I think we should understand while it was a terrible mistake, mistakes happen, and we need to move on.”