Curriculum v. Ideology: the War in the Classroom

In classrooms across the opposition-controlled province of Idlib, the school curriculum has become the battlefield for various factions trying to win the hearts and minds of Syrian youth.

Written by Samer Qatrib and Hadya Yahia, Syrian Independent Media Group Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Ahmed al-Fikri helps his 12-year-old son Abdo al-Fikri, with his homework after school at their family home the village of Maday in the province of Idlib on Sept. 29, 2013. AP

GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Syria’s war is waged largely with bullets and bombs. But there are more subtle battles going on, too – in the classrooms.

Across the country, the groups that have wrested territory from the government have imposed, or have tried to impose, their own curriculum in schools – but have sometimes been forced to work out compromise agreements and often simply messed up the entire system.

It would be impossible to catalog all of these educational battles, but the northwestern province of Idlib offers a compelling case study.

When the government’s Ministry of Education lost control of schools in the area after opposition forces first took over in 2012, a number of teachers, academics and political opposition figures based in nearby Turkey decided to form a National Commission for Education for opposition-controlled areas of the country.

According to Mohmad Saleh Ahmado, director of examinations for the Ministry of Education in the Syrian National Coalition’s interim government, the commission quickly picked up the slack left by the absent education ministry in Idlib.

It hired local teachers and staff and coordinated an alternative curriculum – one that left out pro-Assad and pro-Ba’ath party material and, in some areas, included additional courses on safety and first aid.

But as Islamist factions rose to power across Idlib, they also seized control of schools.

When Jaish al-Fatah – a powerful coalition of Islamist hardliners, including the al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate al-Nusra Front – took control of Idlib in late March 2015, it demanded full control over the educational system in the cities of Idlib, Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour.

The group quickly formed its own directorate of education but did not have the money fully to fund the entire area’s school systems. “In order to control education, one needs money,” Ahmado said.

Since Jaish al-Fatah was unable to provide salaries to all teachers within its newly conquered areas of control, it left the management of schools in rural Idlib to the SNC.

It also reportedly signed an agreement with the Syrian government in which Jaish al-Fatah would continue to use the regime’s curriculum in the city of Idlib, with teachers there continuing to receive government salaries from the Ministry of Education in the government-controlled city of Hama.

A family escapes fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government troops in Idlib, north Syria, March 10, 2012. (AP)

A family escapes fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government troops in Idlib, north Syria, March 10, 2012. (AP)

For teachers in those schools, collecting their government salary can be an expensive and often dangerous ordeal, as they have to travel from opposition-held Idlib to government-controlled Hama in the south.

They face regular harassment and potential detention by army officers at checkpoints along the way. Despite the risks, it “is still better than watching our kids die of hunger,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

Many government-salaried teachers in Idlib have quit their jobs over fears they might be arrested or forced to join the reserve military service while being processed at checkpoints. Officers also regularly extort teachers passing through some of the 50 or so government-controlled checkpoints between the provincial capitals of Idlib and Hama, sometimes demanding bribes of up to $115 – nearly half their monthly salary.

Coordination between the different curricula hasn’t gone smoothly, either. Jaish al-Fatah’s first move was to eliminate all philosophy and history courses, labeling them “infidel” subjects. Later on, the Islamist coalition was forced to reintroduce history and philosophy into its program because the regime’s Ministry of Education included them in its examinations.

As for Idlib’s rural areas, too remote to be part of the agreement with the Syrian regime, Jaish al-Fatah eliminated music, art and agriculture classes, placing a major emphasis on Islamic education and the theology of monotheism, or Tawheed, a key Islamic belief in the oneness of God, taken from the Saudi curriculum. Residents in the area often refer to the Islamist curriculum as the “plus one curriculum,” because of its additional religious component.

As Jaish al-Fatah tightened its grip across the province, it assigned school supervisors to preach Islamic values to students and to enforce Islamic dress codes. Some teachers, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Islamic coalition appointed unqualified teachers to teach the Quran and Sharia (or Islamic) law, firing teachers who had graduated from university with a degree in Islamic jurisprudence, accusing them of being Sufis (followers of a mystical strain of Sunni Islam) and of teaching the SNC’s “infidel” curriculum.

These practices have severely weakened education curricula across the province. Many teachers have left their posts, and now some schools rely on volunteers and university students to lead classes. According to Ahmado at the SNC’s Ministry of Education, there is a shortage of nearly 11,000 teachers across Idlib. This steadily widening gap has been filled by jihadist-oriented programs, he said.

These chaotic changes have dramatically shifted the lives of the students. Abdul Rahman, a 16-year-old from rural Idlib, had to quit school in ninth grade due to the war. When a private, donation-supported Islamic center opened one of their 14 branches in his town, he enrolled.

“Personally, I was very excited to enroll, because I wanted to learn more about my religion. I hope that one day I will teach what I have been learning,” Rahman said.

“Students who graduate from our center are not extremists, since we follow the teachings of well-known and respected scholars, and the center does not follow any militant group, and therefore it does not have any agenda – the goal is to learn Islamic teachings and to qualify for issuing fatwas (Islamic legal opinions).”

Now, he said, many of the students at the center have become fighters, alternating their days between fighting and studying.

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