As soon as Islamic State fighters fully seized Deir Ezzor, they enforced many municipal decisions, one of which was the closure of schools. After a long period of time, during which teachers were required by a Divan of Education [bureau of education] decree to attend training courses in Islamic education, the schools reopened.
Deir Ezzor’s schools are no longer housed in public buildings. Residents of the city volunteered their houses as classrooms, and supplies such as desks and boards were moved there from the schools. The curriculum was modified – many subjects were omitted, while others were added – and the number of schools was limited, as they serve male students only and operate for just four hours a day.
Ahmad, aged 35 and a father of three, was born and raised in Deir Ezzor. He studied elementary school education at the University of Deir Ezzor, and taught in the city for 14 years. We interviewed Ahmad to learn more about the current educational situation.
Syria Deeply: What has changed since the Islamic State took over the city of Deir Ezzor?
Ahmad: Schools were closed for a long period of time, during which teachers were required to attend 25 days of courses in Islamic education. One of the books taught in these courses is The Three Inevitable Duties by Ibn Taymiyyah. The Islamic State demanded that teachers pledge loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, follow the Islamic dress code and lengthen their beards. Many teachers rejected such demands and abandoned their jobs. As for female teachers, they were told that when the girls’ schools open, they must wear the dir’, an outer garment that covers the entire body and the face.
Syria Deeply: What can you tell us about these required courses for teachers? How did they affect teachers?
Ahmad: The courses never addressed the educational issues caused by the war in the region. They were humiliating and they reminded me of the mandatory military training in the regime’s army. Teachers were treated poorly. They were insulted, abused and some of them were accused of blasphemy. Those were interrogated, convicted and punished by the Hisbah Committee [Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice], and they were forced to join the Islamic State’s armed forces. The justification was that the Islamic State needs fighters more than it needs education, but we believe that its goal was to get rid of those who voiced dissatisfaction with the new education system. Most of the course teachers were not Syrians and they did not know anything about Syrian society.
Syria Deeply: What were the teachers’ nationalities? What did they teach you?
Ahmad: They were from Tunisia and Iraq and some were from Morocco. They mostly tried to convince us to join the Islamic State’s armed forces. Most of the lectures focused on the necessity of fighting Western countries, and the Arab countries that are their allies. They appointed themselves as God’s soldiers on earth and gave themselves the right to judge and punish people. Many teachers were affected by their words. They abandoned teaching and joined the armed forces of the Islamic State.
Syria Deeply: What educational subjects did the Islamic State eliminate from the curriculum? And what subjects did it add?
Ahmad: The Islamic State eliminated chemistry, physics, philosophy, social sciences and math. They argued that these subjects are at variance with Islam and that some of them, like math, are not useful in everyday life. Some of those who support the Islamic State argued that some of these subjects were established by non-Muslims and therefore they are prohibited. Six subjects were added to the curriculum, including Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], biography of the prophet, biographies of Islamic leaders, and English translations of the Quran [translation of meanings] and of the Hadith [the sayings of Muhammad].
Syria Deeply: Is education available to everybody?
Ahmad: Right now, only male students are allowed to attend the Islamic State schools, since males and females are not allowed to interact. Girls will be able to attend schools when the female teachers complete their Islamic education courses.
Syria Deeply: What about teachers’ salaries?
Ahmad: In the view of the Islamic State, any money obtained from the Syrian government is haram [forbidden by Allah], and teachers who attempt to collect salaries from the government are charged with treason and killed. The Divan of Education pays teachers a monthly salary of 15,000 SYP ($60), which does not cover life expenses. Prices have quintupled; for example, the price of a bag of pita bread has increased from 20 SYP ($0.08) to 105 SYP ($0.42). At the end of every month, teachers get their salaries in person from the office of the Divan of Education in their neighborhood. The deteriorating situation has forced many teachers to abandon teaching and look for other jobs with better incomes.
Syria Deeply: What about female teachers who are not allowed to work?
Ahmad: Female teachers are not allowed to teach male students and of course male teachers are not allowed to teach female students. Girls’ schools will not operate until female teachers complete their Islamic education courses. The Islamic State did not compensate female teachers who were forced to leave work.
Syria Deeply: What is your assessment of the new educational approach? How will it affect the generations to come?
Ahmad: The Islamic State aims to raise this generation in darkness and to instill aggression and extremism in them. Children are preoccupied with fighting and vengeance. They want to take revenge on those who killed their relatives, and what they learn in the Islamic State schools nurtures and validates such urges.
This bleak and deteriorating situation forced me to abandon teaching. I can’t be a part of this system. It seems to me that they want to disseminate ignorance and hatred, not education and compassion. They seek to impose the same blind obedience that we suffered from under the totalitarian Syrian regime. I am seriously considering applying for asylum somewhere where I can live with dignity.