Center for Strategic Communication

by Ian Derk

Despite the rapid growth of satellite TV in Egypt, terrestrial television remains a popular source for information and entertainment. USAID developed an Egyptian version of Sesame Street in 2000, and it remains popular. But, the success of the progressive Sesame Street is something of an anomaly. More typical are shows by Egyptian state TV, where preachers from the Ministry for Religious Endowment control the programming. For example, in 2006, two different preachers hosted programs to teach hatred of the Jews and the value of martyrdom.

On the Al Nas network, a state-run station, Sheikh Muhammad Sharaf Al-Din told a story to a group of children about a Jewish woman who invited the Prophet Muhammad to her home in an attempt to poison him. To escape the poison, Muhammad (the Prophet) invoked Allah for protection. Al-Din asked the children “what did this story teach you?” A voice rang out “the Jews are a people of treachery and betrayal.” Muhammad exclaimed delight by saying

Allah Akbar! Say Allah Akbar! What did Ruqiya say? The Jews are the people of treachery and betrayal. May Allah give you success. We want mothers who teach their sons jihad, the love of Allah and His Messenger, sacrifice for the sake of Islam, and love for the countries of the Muslims. Loving the country of the Muslims. May Allah bless you, Ruqaya. That is the most beautiful thing I have heard – that the Jews are the people of treachery, betrayal, and vileness.

On the topic of martyrdom, Sheikh Muhammad Nassar used the same program on a different day to tell the children a story of a child martyr who abandoned his home to join a jihad against the infidels. He killed three before his own death. The friends of the young martyr buried the boy but, as they buried him, the earth shook and the corpse rose from the ground. Martyrs, Nassar explained, are revived by Allah, and Allah will not abandon his troops. He explained on a later program that weapons of infidels, like splitting the atom, will not harm Muslims because Allah will open the earth to swallow them whole.


In both these examples, the clerics use polarization as a communication strategy. Polarization is a method of finding two extremes and debating the merits of each. This creates two opposing entities and a strong division between the two. By limiting the middle ground, a polarizing argument snuffs multiple options in the mind of an audience. With only two options, the polarizing arguer needs to defend his position against only one alternative. Presenting an argument with two options, and one superior to the other, is called argument by dilemma.

An either/or view of life is effective because people are “cognitive misers.” As human beings, we are faced with thousands of choices each day. We generally like having options but find too many options difficult, even overwhelming. Our mental energy is finite, and we like to save our thinking power. To make life a little easier, we take shortcuts as thinkers. We make these shortcuts by convincing ourselves that certain options are beyond the scope and focusing on a few options. Having fewer options make us more satisfied in our decisions and allows us to mentally move on.

Polarization and dilemmas work because they are simple arguments for cognitive misers. A simple argument requires less mental energy to understand, so polarization arguments work well when the audience has fewer mental resources to apply to the problem. Children are common audiences for polarizing arguments because they are relatively inexperienced. Polarization is popular on children’s television because it teaches concepts without a lot of explanation. Grover, the blue monster, breathlessly illustrated the concept of near and far on Sesame Street. Likewise “love Muslims, hate Jews” works because children can polarize familiar people with unfamiliar people. Children thus learn fundamental cultural constructs by polarization.


Interestingly, polarization does fail in certain cases with children. A Palestinian/Israeli version of Sesame Street launched in 1998 and, in the progressive spirit of the show, claimed that the borders between the Palestinians and Israelis were artificial inventions rather than natural boundaries . Parents objected to the direction of the show, and the second season began to treat the borders as impassible objects. With walls on every street, including streets populated by Big Bird, the adults were satisfied, yet the children disliked the change in the show and wanted the old Sesame Street back. Children watching Sesame Street in Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip weren’t born with the idea of their border as natural. They may not understand the complex differences between ethnic and religious groups (similar to many adults), but they do feel safe with what they know. Children recognized a difference in the second season and disliked the imposition of a polarized view.

The point is that the polarization arguments to children may be effective but we should be wary in polarizing children. Children learn how to polarize early. Hatred is taught and dilemmas are inherited. Unless presented with an alternative, a child trained in polarization early will continue to think in a polarized way. Therefore, although the current project of creating an alternative news outlet for adults in the Middle East is a good idea, the creation of an alternate form of children’s educational programming is even more vital, because people that advocate intolerance are reaching children with a polarization strategy while we are attempting to sway adults who have been enculturated for years into polarized thinking.

The Egyptian version of Sesame Street promotes education for all people, girls in particular. The Middle East craves children’s programming, and programming that teaches acceptance by complicating polarizations could fill that void. The Middle East of the future will be shaped by war and technology but also by preachers and puppets. His appearance aside, Big Bird is the best diplomat we have to teach acceptance to children in a polarized world.

Further Reading

Benoit Godin (1999). Argument from consequences and the urge to polarize. Argumentation Volume 13 No. 4

Middle East Media Research Institute (2006). Egyptian government preacher incites children to martyrdom. Special Dispatch Series – No. 1197