DEIR EZ-ZOR — As soon as ISIS fighters fully seized Deir ez-Zor, they made a number of draconian changes, one of which was to close schools. After a lengthy period, during which teachers were required to attend training courses in Islamic education, the schools reopened.
The city's schools are no longer housed in public buildings. Residents instead have volunteered their houses as classrooms and supplies, such as desks and boards, have been moved there from the schools. The curriculum has been modified — many subjects were omitted, while others were added — and the number of schools is limited, as they serve only male students and operate for just four hours a day.
Ahmad, a 35-year-old father of three, was born and raised here. He studied elementary school education at the University of Deir ez-Zor and taught in the city system for 14 years. During an interview with Syria Deeply, he told us more about the current education situation here.
SYRIA DEEPLY: What has changed since ISIS took over the city of Deir ez-Zor?
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. ISIS demanded that teachers pledge loyalty to its leader 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 niqab covering the entire body and face.
What can you tell us about these required courses for teachers? How did they affect teachers?
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 ISIS armed forces. The justification was that ISIS 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.
What were the teachers' nationalities? What did they teach you?
They were from Tunisia and Iraq and some were from Morocco. They mostly tried to convince us to join ISIS. 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 ISIS armed forces.
What educational subjects did ISIS eliminate from the curriculum? And what subjects did it add?
They 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 ISIS argued that some of these subjects were established by non-Muslims and therefore 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 Koran and of the Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad).
What about teachers' salaries?
In the view of ISIS, any money obtained from the Syrian government is forbidden by Allah and teachers who attempt to collect salaries from the government are charged with treason and killed. The Bureau of Education pays teachers a monthly salary of 15,000 Syrian pounds ($60), which does not cover living expenses. Prices have quintupled. For example, the price of a bag of pita bread has increased from 20 Syrian pounds ($0.08) to 105 ($0.42). At the end of every month, teachers get their salaries in person from the office of the Bureau of Education in their neighborhood. The deteriorating situation has forced many teachers to abandon teaching and look for other jobs with better incomes.
What about female teachers who are not allowed to work?
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. ISIS did not compensate female teachers who were forced to leave work.
What is your assessment of the new educational approach? How will it affect the generations to come?
ISIS 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 ISIS 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.