div>(Deyr az-Zawr, Syria) Upon hearing the name Deyr az-Zawr, anyone who knows that the city is controlled by the self-declared Islamic State (IS) would automatically foresee news of a massacre perpetrated by the followers of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“When I go to the teacher’s house, I can’t reveal my books in public or carry them in a backpack: I have to place them in a bag with some clothes so that I don’t get caught.”
Nonetheless, people are trying to have a relatively normal life, striving to preserve education even if they had to abide by the IS regulations. Therefore, at the end of December 2014, 175 teachers from areas controlled by the Islamic State in Deyr az-Zawr attended training courses in Islamic education, which, according to the followers of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, were aimed at “rectifying their religion.”
In fact, schools managed by local councils remained closed for five months after the Islamic State entered opposition-held neighbourhoods in the city centre . These quarters are still surrounded by areas controlled by the Syrian regime, such as al-Jura in the west and Harabish in the east.
A group of teachers decided then to plead with the local Emir of Education, also known as Abu al-Fadl from Deyr ez-Zawr, to see what will become of the schools in the city. When they asked him why schools were suspended for the first time in four years of war, he replied: “If you want to resume teaching, shariʿah courses are the only way,” as reported by ʿAmir(1), the director of a public school.
The teachers thus had two options: either keeping the schools closed or undergoing the training. According to ʿAmir, they agreed with the IS on the second option, accepting the abolition of two subjects and the modification of the rest of the Baʿthist curriculum.
The cancelled subjects were:
– Islamic education, because it was a secondary subject at variance with the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, so that it was replaced with a new course called “doctrine and jihad”.
– Philosophy, evidently, since it contradicts the Islamic State’s tenets.
Nationalism, which had been abolished in opposition-held regions during the war, remained so. The rest of the courses in the curriculum were modified.
Yaser, a former Islamic education teacher who now teaches “doctrine and jihad”, condemned the IS for imposing teaching materials at odds with Islamic principles. “The subject offers nothing about the Islam we know. It is all about the West and Western wars against Islam, teaching young men how to become mujahidin and how martyrs go directly to heaven,” he told Good Morning Syria.
“A section in the course justifies the takfir (the act of declaring other Muslims apostates) of those who settled in the regions controlled by the regime , in accordance with the Friday sermons in mosques,” Yaser added.
As for the shariʿa training courses, all the teachers agreed that the content was not focused on schools or curricula, but it was essentially a propaganda introduction about the Islamic State and the sanctions facing those who oppose it. The course also illustrated to the teachers the reasons behind their religious deviations.
“(In the Islamic State’s opinion) we are wrong because we threw the simplest sunnah (the actions and sayings) of the Prophet, our beard, on the floor for the barber to step on it,” said Ramiz, another instructor. Teachers were also informed about the benefits awaiting those who pledge allegiance to the “caliphate”, but no one was forced to do so or to lengthen his beard at the end of the training.
Mohammad was one of the teachers who refused to complete the training, as he did not want to become “a criminal or a terrorist” even if he could serve an entire generation of graduates. He described what happened in those rooms to Good Morning Syria as “brainwashing”.
In February 2015 , the Islamic State issued a decree binding all students to attend the eight schools it opened, but many parents refused to send their children to schools because of the “doctrine and jihad” class. Some instructors who had attended the mandatory training opened private schools that taught a number of authorised courses, in addition to a course on the memorisation of the Holy Qurʼan instead of “doctrine and jihad”. This tricked the Islamic State into allowing them to open the schools.
For instance, the ash-Shahid School for girls, one of these private schools, offers classes like IT, English, Arabic and memorisation of the Holy Quran, in addition to a banned subject: psychological support.
“Psychological support is very important given the circumstances the children live in, as well as the constant shelling and clashes, but the IS prohibits psychological support, considering it a waste of time. Therefore, the classes are given in secret,” said Shirin, the school’s psychological support trainer.
However, the “caliphate”‘s local authorities closed their schools at the end of May 2015 – only two months after their inauguration – and forced the teachers to undergo a second training without mentioning the reasons. Many refrained from attending the courses and the Islamic State kept the schools closed.
As for the private schools, they remained open, but the IS monitors them closely, ready to shut down a school as soon as it notices any violation, such as psychological support classes or contacts between male and female students, even in the first grade – at the age of six.
After the Islamic State schools and four private ones were closed, a great number of students found themselves with no access to education. Therefore, some teachers decided to start private courses at home in secret. The fees are low given the parents’ financial situation, which forced a number of teachers to look for other jobs to fulfil their basic needs.
ِAmmar, a private teacher who owns a fuel station, said: “I have a family to feed every day and knowledge to pass down to the next generations. I sell fuel to feed my family and give private lessons in secret to share my knowledge with the next generations. But –like any other teacher working in secret – I fear that, if the Islamic State found out about us, our families would have no one to feed them, and the students no one to teach them.”
The students share this burden. “Private lessons are very dangerous for the teachers, due to the Islamic State’s ban, but there’s no other way. When I go to the teacher’s house, I can’t reveal my books in public or carry them in a backpack: I have to place them in a bag with some clothes so that I don’t get caught,” said Khalid, a 17-year-old private tuition student.
This is how education is maintained in Deyr az-Zawr and this is what scares all the private instructors. Nonetheless, these teachers are fighting against ignorance and working in highly dangerous circumstances to safeguard the future of their students.