Four approaches on the political and ideological map of conflicts are shaping the future of education in Syria
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
“My name is Ali, I am 18 years old and a ninth grade student.” This is a very short anecdote. Its plot has been hastily set by the war, and its characters, protagonists, and victims are the millions of Syrian students who are stumbling into events and details, and most of whom will not survive the symptoms of its tragic end.
Ali al-Adel, one of the citizens of northern Aleppo countryside, has just finished his primary education when the revolution broke out. For him, it was too early for his life to change completely, and to stumble in first step towards the future under the two military authorities, which his homeland will successively witness in the upcoming years.
“Before the revolution, primary education included teaching Arabic, English and other subjects, such as science and mathematics. I was an average school student, and education was available in terms of curriculum and teaching staff,” said Ali to Enab Baladi referring to his education profile.
However, this situation could not continue after the conflict had been intensified, for education sector was directly affected in most Syrian regions, amid the deterioration of the security situation, teachers’ departure, and students dropping out of schools.
According to statistics published by The United Nations’ UNICEF, the first two years of the revolution had witnessed the killing of 222 teachers all over Syria, in addition to the destruction of about 3,000 schools. However, this figure has multiplied several times since then.
Until 2014, the educational process had witnessed confusion in regime-held areas and an almost complete collapse in the areas held by opposition factions. Along with the formation of the “Interim Government” affiliated to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Ministry of Education struggled to administer the education process in the areas outside the regime’s control, through providing schools with modified curriculum and educational alternatives according to available means.
The third year of the revolution witnessed the announcement of the formation of “self-management” in al-Hasakah province along with ISIS spread in several Syrian regions. The two new military authorities took their geographical positions and imposed themselves on the society by force through their affiliated institutions which have been responsible for managing different sectors including education.
Given the fact that the two newly formed forces needed to impose their ideologies on the population, they mainly targeted the category of children, producing two different educational systems, which are radically different from the opposition and the regime’s.
“After its formation, the interim government started to re-introduce educational opportunities, but this could not be maintained when ISIS took over the region,” said Ali describing that phase.
Ali had to quit school for a year during ISIS control, and then decided to join one of Sharia institutions, which were similar to quranic schools, where Koran and Hadiths are taught, in addition to implanting ISIS ideas and encouraging “jihadist” thought.
“When I attended the first lesson at the institute, the teacher was Moroccan, and the education was entirely based on denying some Hadiths and teaching Sharia-based curriculum. However, I did not attend these lessons for a long time, because I travelled to Turkey after a while,” said Ali.
In addition to Sharia institutions, ISIS has worked to produce curriculum for nine school levels in some areas and to establish an educational system based on ISIS books to correspond with its “extremist” ideas and implant the “jihadist ideology” and the concepts of ISIS in school children.
ISIS schools are currently active in the areas held by Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, mainly in Daraa province, which schools are divided between three different authorities. Students in opposition factions held areas are being taught according to the old curriculum of the regime, which have been modified by the Interim Government. However, in Daraa and some regime-held villages, the schools are adopting the updated curriculum approved by the regime for the academic year 2017-2018 and circulated to the directorates of education affiliated to the regime’s government.
The three curriculum are the embodiment of the discrepancy between political projects throughout Syria. Adding to this sense of discrepancy is the curriculum taught in self-administration areas in al-Hasakah province. The curriculum is often taught in the Kurdish language and is consistent with the ideology of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Despite the dark picture of the educational situation of fragmentation, the existence of three million Syrian school-age children outside the educational process is actually worse, according to UNICEF estimations, which foreshadows a largely illiterate generation.
After he returned to Syria, Ali al-Adel enrolled at schools run by the Turkish Ministry of Education. He sought to obtain a middle school diploma, even though he is 18. Referring to the educational situation in his area, Ali said that it is better now compared to the way it was five years ago.
Following the dark scene which Ali al-Adel’s story has shaped about the educational process in Syria, Enab Baladi carried out a full survey of the contents of the various school curriculum that were modified or produced following considerations, which seemed to be scientific in some cases and were dominated by the political and ideological nature of the different authorities in other cases. Enab Baladi also tried to look for appropriate solutions to redeem the imbalance and compensate for the lack of education in Syria.
Political domestication in the regime’s curriculum
According to the 2017 and 2018 editions, the curriculum of the Syrian regime did not bear significant differences from the previous ones. The Curriculum Development Committee of the Ministry of Education in the regime government focused on developing some scientific subjects such as mathematics.
As for the theoretical material, the change that was made was insignificant despite the political implications it contained, which reflected the Syrian regime’s intentions to suggest that the situation in Syria has not changed in the last seven years.
This change is evident in theoretical subjects such as history, geography, and nationalism, for the different political connotations they contain can serve the perceptions of the authority in Damascus and help it grow a generation absorbed in the history the authority has written and the geography it has set, in addition to the political, social, and economic systems, which have been established to the authorities benefit.
Both the opposition media and the regime have been preoccupied over the past year with the details of the curriculum, which have been modified by the Syrian regime in 2017. It was controversial that the regime managed to modify 50 books at once, prompting questions about the eligibility of the educational committees, which managed to make all these modifications during a short time, and the reason behind the urgent need for these comprehensive modifications and their necessity and content.
These changes affect four million Syrian students who belong to primary (first and second phases) and secondary schools, according to the statement of Hazwan al-Wizz Minister of Education in the government of the regime, at the beginning of the previous academic year.
While reviewing the content of samples of the regime’s curriculum, Enab Baladi managed to single out few modifications containing some political connotations in an attempt to scrutinize the extent to which these modifications have affected children and young generation.
Obliterating the events of the past seven years
The geography books modified by the Syrian regime include statistics, which date back to 2008 or even before, tackling the economic resources or population ratios, demographic distribution and migration movements from Syria and other countries, knowing that these books were printed for the academic year 2017-2018.
All the numerical indicators related to population and economy, have changed drastically since the outbreak of the revolution to the present time. Regardless of all of this, the use of any statistics issued more than 10 years ago undermines the authenticity and the reliability of these statistics in term of reference and knowledge.
For instance, the ninth grade geography book indicates that the movement of youth migration from the Arab world has declined as a result of the “improvement of the internal situation” and indicates that the number of Syrian immigrants amounted to one million, based on official statistics issued in 2008. The book neglected the fact that the number of displaced Syrians after the revolution has exceeded 7 million. It also overlooked the migration of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from different Arab countries as result of revolutions, wars, and several internal conflicts that have erupted in the region since 2011.
Deliberately obscuring the events which took place in Syria through education cannot fool the Syrian middle school students who are the recipients that have witnessed all the past seven years’ events in the country. This reinforces the state of denial that the regime seeks to consolidate, either through media or school curricula.
The curricula of the Syrian regime’s government focus on the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which has been annexed by Turkey since 1939, in addition to the occupied Syrian Golan heights since 1967. They are also mentioned in history, geography, and nationalism curriculum.
The regime seeks to send anti-Turkish messages through the map it is including in the curriculum, which considers Turkey as an “occupying state,” thus reflecting the sharp political controversy which has been generated following Turkey’s support for the Syrian revolution.
These messages are reflected in the modifications, which have been made in the eighth grade preparatory book last year at the request of the government, which is based on replacing the term “Conquest of Constantinople” with the “Invasion of Constantinople” and “Mehmed the Conqueror” by “Mehmed II” in an attempt to consolidate the idea of “Ottoman occupation” in the minds of students.
“Religion pertains to God and patriotism is for all”
Minister of Education in the Syrian regime, Hezwan al-Wiz, announced last year that his ministry is working to modify the curriculum of religious education of all levels, in an attempt to raise awareness and “move away from ignorance and extremism.” These modifications are scheduled to be carried out “in primary, middle, and secondary schools and successively over a period of four years.”
Al-Wiz stated that these modifications occur within the context of developing religious education as a subject and not to cancel it. He also stated that “extremism does not spring from religion, but rather ignorance and the curricula will be continuously developed in proportion with the different educational levels.”
The majority of these modifications were the result of the calls of People’s Assembly members, who described Syria’s educational curricula as “secular” because of canceling the subject of religious education, and replacing it with the “ethics” subject.
Enab Baladi reviewed the first religious education book, which has been modified. The first- year primary school book contains koranic verses, which are meant to be memorized, Hadiths and the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which is usually taught to six-year- old children.
It is unlikely that the religious education will be subject to a dramatic change in the upcoming years, in an attempt to avoid the violation of the dominant belief in society. It may focus on certain aspects related to jihad so as to avoid ideas that the regime seeks to link to extremism and through which it justifies the bombing of civilians, on the pretext of the existence of “extremist jihadists” in the targeted areas.
On the other hand, there have been calls among pro-regime loyalties to cancel the subject of “nationalism education” and replace it with “national education.” The name has already been replaced, but the regime continues to focus, in the new curriculum, on the concepts of Arabism and nationalism, using these notions to highlight Syria’s “pivotal” position in the Arab world.
The curricula of the ninth and twelfth grades for nationalism education include several inaccuracies. The new curriculum continues to focus on the idea of the Arab League and Syrian role in this association, despite the suspension of Damascus’ membership since 2011.
What is noteworthy about the nationalism education books is that the regime began to change its content to distance it relatively from the “glorification” of al-Assad family or the Arab Socialist Baath Party, to promoting the concepts of pluralism and democracy in an attempt to communicate the open- mindedness of the political system. The regime has been trying to promote for this mindset since 2011, through the promulgation of the Party Law, and the abolition of Article 8 of the Constitution, which provides for the Baath Party’s leadership of society and state.
The political orientation is clearly manifested through focusing on the concept of “resistance” advocated by the regime. The ninth grade national education school book describes the entire “resistance culture,” the resistance media, and “their role in combating terrorism.”
The Russian is a friend
The number of Syrian students studying the Russian language in Syrian schools is 7,533, according to the statements of Hezwan al-Wiz, the Minister of Education of the Syrian regime. The ministry gives students, starting from the seventh grade, the opportunity to choose another language besides English, such as Russian or French.
Although the minister justified this by the fact that the Russian language is necessary to expand the scope of knowledge and learn more about the culture of others, this trend began with the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015 in support of the Syrian regime.
The Russians are considered as the most prominent allies of the Syrian regime, which justifies the regime’s need to teach the Russian language in schools and its attempt to introduce the Russian as a friend, as well as justifying his continuous presence even in case of achieving political transition in Syria.
Russian language is taught in regime-held areas, while Turkish is taught in some areas of the Syrian north, which are held by Turkish-loyal military factions.
Language is one of the most useful means of learning, which enables the individual to be inspired by characteristics of its mother country. Politically, it can be used to bring individual and collective loyalties in favour of a certain state.
In addition to the impact of the Russian intervention on Syrian education and curriculum, a large part of the regime’s supporters have been affected by the general situation as a result of the great trend towards militarization in Syrian. Therefore, they called for transferring it to schools through the revival of the subject of military education.
The Assistant Secretary of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, Hilal Hilal, said last year that the party is discussing the issue of re-introducing the military education subject into the curriculum in a way that “commensurates with the current situation and cultural development.”
Bringing back military education may be pointless amid the massive randomization of the process of militarization, and the thousands of young people joining national defense militias, in which they are trained to carry their arms on the pretext of self-defense and protecting the security of their regions.
Self-initiatives for a pro-regime learning process
The modifications that have been applied to some of the Syrian government’s curriculum may not hold open political connotations. However, what is striking about the educational situation within regime-held areas is the popular tendency to turn these connotations into direct and blunt ways through some practices, which have been monitored by media outlets in schools and during party meetings and the sessions of the People’s Assembly.
Last year, the Syrian Ministry of Education issued a decree to cancel a poem, which was written by opposition poet, Yasser al-Atrash, and replace it with a poem entitled “Watani” by the poet Sair Ibrahim.
This modification occurred under the pressure of loyalists of the Syrian regime who criticized the adoption of a poem originally written by an opposition poet. This has sparked a great controversy on Facebook, accusing the pro-regime media professional, Wahid Yazbek and the Ministry of Education of including poems of those whom they described as extremists, and demanded their expulsion from the educational curriculum.
As for the talk about the cancellation of religion education, the proposal was suggested by some members of the People’s Assembly, who were supported by pro-regime artists and media professionals. For instance, actor Duraid Laham argued that religion education in schools is the reason behind the sectarian situation, which Syria is currently witnessing. He also objected to the designation of religious education and suggested “faith education” instead.
In addition, some classrooms have become stages to praise military and political figures connected to the regime. After the killing of the military commander in al-Assad forces, Essam Zahreddine, pictures of a lesson in a school in Masyaf area in Hama countryside were published. During the lesson, the teacher referred to Zahreddine as an example of “Heroism.” The teacher presented sentences such as “he was not just a fighter, he was a soldier and a loyal leader,” and asked the children to parse them.
This approach carries great risks, as the pro-regime teachers are helping al-Assad to compensate for the ideas which would strengthen the regime and which the school curriculum has failed to transmit to students.
Many parents may be unable to reduce the impact of these ideas because of fear and unwillingness to put their children in situations that include arguments and that would throw them out of the circle of “patriotism and allegiance” and consequently expose them to security problems.
Curriculum Development Committee: Security bodies did not manipulate our work
A source at the Curriculum Development Committee of the Syrian regime government denied that security authorities have not imposed any scientific or theoretical content on the curriculum designers while updating school curricula.
The source (who refused to be named for security reasons) told Enab Baladi that the curriculum development centers did not witness any security presence, stressing that “specialists from all communities participated in the process.”
The source pointed out that UNESCO and UNICEF have conducted training courses and workshops for members of the Curriculum Development Committee in order to raise the level of content and parallel activities, in line with scientific development.
According to the source, the new curriculum was based on European and Canadian translated standards, pointing out that the new mathematics curriculum was ranked as the best in the Arab world.
The “Interim Government’s” curricula:
Adapting history and borders to the Turkish wave
While the opposition factions were battling al-Assad forces in 2012, students in areas that were out of control of the regime were studying books containing pictures of al-Assad and statements of the “Immortal Leader.”
This situation continued until 2013, when 3 million textbooks were printed with no reference to figures associated with the regime or the Ba’ath Party. The following year, the Ministry of Education, which is affiliated to the Syrian Interim Government of the opposition, has been formed. It has modified the curriculum according to the requirements of the new phase away from political symbols, which have dominated and intruded into school curriculum for 40 years.
Enab Baladi got a copy of a report, which tackles the modifications brought at the curriculum in the Education Directorate of the Interim Government. This report pointed out the need to intellectually oppose the regime in order to eliminate ignorance and corruption caused by the curriculum of the regime. This curriculum has been formulated and politicized to serve one single purpose: Worshiping and glorifying the inspiring leader whom falsehood cannot approach from before or from behind. Despite the existence of positive elements of thought in the curriculum, which the regime was not able to distort, it disregarded the development of the individual and improving the level of his consciousness. Therefore, working to review the curriculum and developing some aspects was necessary in order to keep pace with intellectual development that occurred as a result of the revolution.
However, Enab Baladi’s analysis of the contents of these modifications brought at the books of the “Interim Government,” has revealed that they were not reflecting development in the true sense of the word, but rather constituted a violation of political concepts and historical, geographical and nationalism perceptions.
The Ministry of Education in the interim government has some 2,000 schools in various areas held by opposition factions, with some 600,000 attendees. The quality of education has not been maintained due to the instability of the areas which are beyond the control regime, and students lack of commitment to school attendance, mainly in camps or areas of displacement. This has created several problems in schools, such as the different students’ levels, the delay of thousands in their regular classes, the drop out of a large proportion of teachers, and the participation of inexperienced ones in the educational process.
However, the Interim Government was able to extract official recognition from several organizations, such as Britain and the USA.
Turkey’s eyes on the curriculum
The report of the approved curriculum in the directorates of the Ministry of Education in the Interim Government indicates that the modifications ranged from deletion, addition, revision, and replacement, while maintaining the full scientific content (physics, mathematics, natural sciences, chemistry, English and French).
These modifications have affected history, geography and nationalism, for the last subject has been completely cancelled. The curriculum of history has been revised, “because it contained many inaccuracies, falsifications and counterfeiting in violation of historical facts,” according to the same report.
Enab Baladi’s analysis of the content showed that these “inaccuracies” revolved around the era, which marked the Ottomans presence in the Arab world. For instance, any words referring to “Ottoman occupation” were replaced by “Ottoman” rule.
However, these modifications did not stress the negation of the colonial features of the Ottoman Empire referred to in the original curricula (the old ones of the regime), which creates a sense of contradiction in this point of view in several occasions.
In addition, the Syrian maps, which are introduced into the opposition books, do not contain the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which Turkey has annexed in the 1930s, while being referred to as being part of Syria in the books of the regime.
This approach is linked to the fact that Turkey is the main headquarters of the “Interim Government” and the responsible party for printing Syrian school curricula associated to it. The Interim Government curricula are taught in some Syrian schools within Turkey, which is establishing military control in some parts of the Syrian north and is considered as the opposition factions’ only international gateway in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
In addition to “revision and correction,” the Ministry of Education in the “Interim Government” did not “update or develop.”
For example, the geography books of the Interim Government used the same analysis of the regime’s books to explain the causes of migration, such as looking for jobs without referring to the crisis of “asylum” as one of the biggest crises the Syrian people are currently witnessing. This crisis is supposed to be largely an opposition-related issue rather than the regime’s.
No effort has been made to update some figures related to statistics and demographic distribution of the population, agriculture, and industry. Instead, they have relied on outdated statistics and figures, just like the regime did.
This might have been related to logistical constraints such as the difficulty to identify budgets and funding, the difficulty of conducting surveys and recruiting qualified curriculum development staff. However, no future plans or orientations have been announced in this regard, which leaves the door open to criticism amid the absence of modifications of political and scientific nature.
The directorates of education of the interim government are periodically issuing recommendations about any modifications, thus eliminating the “stuffing or paragraphs that are not appropriate for the time being,” without replacement them with other information.
One book, two authorities
Turkey is fully controlling the educational process in its areas of direct influence in the Syrian north, which is called the “Euphrates Shield” areas, including Jarabulus and Azaz in northern Aleppo. Despite teaching the same “Interim Government” syllabus in the schools of these areas, some of the contents and political references have been changed within these approaches.
Turkey is trying to put its educational system into practice in these areas. Ali Riza Altunel, director of the “Lifelong Learning” program in the Turkish Ministry of Education, confirmed this during an interview with Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, last September. He stated that “the ministry is trying to share the experience of education in Turkey with the Euphrates shield areas within a short period of time, especially the e-learning system.”
These areas include about 500 schools having about 150,000 students, according to statements of the Turkish Ministry of Education.
Last year, educational offices in the Free Aleppo Governorate Council issued a decision to include the Turkish language into the curriculum starting from elementary to secondary school level.
In addition, many schools are given Turkish names of those who have been killed in some battles during the Euphrates Shield. Also, the Syrian flag of the revolution and the Turkish flag are combined on the covers of school periodic reports.
Such transformation of the educational process means that school curriculum did not escape the control of multiple authorities, even in areas held by a particular military party. The “Interim Government” does not intervene in education within the areas of the Euphrates Shield, although its authority is supposed to practically include these areas.
This great access some Syria regions are having to Turkey compared to others may negatively affect the future of the post-conflict educational process.
Ministry of Education in the “Interim Government”
We are confronting the politicization of education
Enab Baladi contacted Emad Barq, the Minister of Education in the Interim Government to obtain comments about the modifications brought to the curriculum and which have been monitored by Enab Baladi. Barq confirmed that the Syrian curriculum, which has been taught in regime-held areas before the latest modifications, were subject to a filtering process, then printed and distributed in schools affiliated to the ministry.
Concerning the modifications which removed the term “Ottoman occupation” and replaced it by the “Ottoman rule,” Barq stated that it was flouted because it did not conform to the policy of the Turkish government.
He pointed out that the modifications brought to the curriculum of the regime did not affect the scientific material. They rather targeted materials tainted by ideology, and he considered this as an “evolution.”
Barq added that “since the curriculum of the Syrian state is universally acknowledged and has been classified according to international standards, then its adoption was necessary.” He also added that “the regime has made some modifications to the mathematics, and these modifications were good, and there was no objection to their use. What is the most important for us is to remove ideological thought or anything that might be pertaining to the politicization of education.”
“We need trained staff and experts who can develop curriculum. The currently available expertise may not commensurate with current conditions in terms of scientific development,” said the minister of education, stressing the ministry’s efforts to develop the curriculum, despite the difficulty they are presently facing.
“PKK” Ideology in the books of al-Hasakah students
Since its establishment, “self-management” has pushedall its directorates to exercise administrative authority over society, and to guide it in favour of a narrow ideology and a nascent political authority, which seeks to cling to the land.
The work of the Directorate of Education seemed to be the most difficult. There was a need for curricula that would make an educational difference in line with the change of authority, and make a shift at the level of language and thought included in these curricula.
Since 2015, self-management has introduced new curricula in the Kurdish language to the first primary grades. Then, it has gradually disseminated the new curricula to students in different grades until it reached the ninth grade. However, the situation warned that it would reach a confusing stage for parents who want their children to receive a basic education certificate recognized by the regime.
Although the Kurdish language is more common in the “self-management” areas, the official in the joint presidency of the Education Authority in al-Jazira province, Samira Hajj Ali, said that “the other components teach the same curricula but in their language,” which means that Arab students are taught in Arabic and Syriac students are taught in Syriac.
It is assumed that the Directorate of Education will continue its plan to make the new curricula generalized at all levels of education in schools under the authority of “self-management.”
Since 2015, the “Training Committee of the Democratic Society” has trained “thousands of teachers to match their experiences with the new curricula,” Samira Hajj Ali told Syrian media. Hundreds of teachers are now distributed to dozens of schools in the “self-management” areas.
The experience of teaching all school levels without involving the Arabic language is the first in Syria, and is the most dangerous to the unity of the educational process in the Syrian territory, regardless of the political authorities.
This danger, along with other dangers represented by the weakness of the curricula presented and the lack of recognition, unless on a small scale, generated popular anger which was expressed through dozens of demonstrations that began in the self-management areas in protest against the “Kurdization” process.
However, “Asayish” security forces faced those demonstrations with large-scale security campaigns and arrested dozens of Arabs and Kurds, including teachers and students’ parents.
According to local sources in al-Hasakah, many people preferred to leave the “self-management” areas and live in the regime areas, to ensure “a better future for their children” and escape the “self-management” tightening, while the latter tries to link the acceptance of the Kurdish curricula with the strength of national sentiment, and promotes it in media.
Media outlets and human rights activists criticized the contents of these approaches, and pointed to gaps and errors that it included.
Meanwhile, Enab Baladi conducted a survey on the history and geography curricula taught to students in the basic school to find out the most important changes in the textbooks, and their political implications and as an indicator of the kind of impact that they can have on students.
A national homeland and a philosophical religion
Syria as a country is absent from the “self-management” books; instead, there is Rojava with its three provinces, as part of Greater Kurdistan.
Rojava (west of Kurdistan) is bordered to the north by northern Kurdistan, and to the east by southern Kurdistan,” according to the geography curriculum. This is an attempt to change the views of the youth about the homeland and the State, and instil the thought of Greater Kurdistan, without considerations for any existing real states.
These books are taught to students between the ages of 12 and 15, i.e. middle school students, who studied two or three years ago, at the latest, different approaches that depict Syria with its existing natural borders, which means that this process of conceptual change is sudden and not paved for. This might have negative impact on these recipients, as they are at an age that qualifies them for comparison and awareness of changes.
Accordingly, “self-management” seeks to “impose” the idea of “Greater Kurdistan” on students, which could carry great risks in the future, by strengthening the desire to separate the Kurdish areas of Syria for generations to come.
The history book for the seventh grade is based on the same map, and deals with the civilizations that arose in their region as “civilizations in the Kurdish region.” The focus is also on the “Median” civilization, whose founders are said to be the ancestors of the current Kurdish population.
In addition to trying to establish the idea of the state from a nationalist point of view, “self-management” approaches fight religion as a doctrine, and attempt to promote religions as philosophies that the prophets brought.
This process is carried out through history books, where religious books disappear from the curricula of “self-management,” although 95% of the Kurds in Syria believe in Islam.
The history book of the eighth grade deals with Muhammad philosophy and Islam after discussing the “philosophies” of the prophets Jesus and Moses. This book believes in the prophecy of Zoroaster and explains his philosophy in discussing religions, messengers and prophets.
The history curriculum deals with the period of the emergence of Islam and its spread as a “revolution which has been spread over large areas,” not a Da’wah or conquests, and then talks about the spread of Islam “over the Kurdish areas,” in addition to explaining the “pros and cons” of this spread.
The history curriculum in the “self-management” books consider that Islam, despite its positive aspects, contributed to weakening the Kurds’ feeling of nationalism. These ideas come up as an interpretation of the “self-management” trends, backed by the Democratic Union Party, in an attempt to spread national thought over religious thought, as Islam is one of the factors of Kurds’ integration with Arabs through mixing ideological links between them.
The “self-management” curricula reflect a clear separatist spirit that politicians deny. Although the curriculum does not mention the idea of separation, its details help to develop a separatist spirit in children and adolescents, and here lies the seriousness of the curricula, which seem to have served the existing power ideology.
Turkey and the Kurdish-Kurdish rift
The textbooks in the “self-management” curricula portray Turkey as an enemy of the Kurdish people, and try to consolidate this idea by recalling the massacres committed against the Kurds during the Ottoman Empire.
The books point out that Turkey and its neighbouring countries from the East have put down many of the Kurdish revolutions in Iran and Azerbaijan.
It is natural that the Kurdish curricula bear this sign, given the historical differences between the Kurds and Turks and the recent tensions following the establishment of “self-management” in Syria as well as the formation of “People’s Protection Units” as a Kurdish military force in northern Syria. However, it is strange that these curricula promote, in parallel with Turkey’s hostility to the Kurdish-Kurdish rift, the Barzanis as “traitors and losers.”
The curriculum also attacks Mustafa Barzani and Masoud Barzani, and depicts them as leaders of tribal groups who maintain their interests at the expense of the rest of the Kurds, in addition to accusing the Barzani ideology of dependence on the Shah of Iran and wasting many opportunities for the Kurds. This explains the dependency of the Democratic Union Party on the PKK, the anti-Barzanis party.
Kurdish history and geography books do not carry any reference to a state of hostility with the Syrian regime or the Syrian opposition. This may be due to the incomplete curriculum as a series that is supposed to reach the secondary level.
“The leader Apo”
The “self-management” curriculum depicts PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as a leader and a symbol of nationalism. It glorifies and quotes him, and deals with his thought in all textbooks since the primary stage.
In “self-management” books, Enab Baladi observed photos of Öcalan and quotations attributed to him in different parts of these books.
The curriculum also focuses on the dissemination of his philosophy and ideas to be an intellectual basis for students, much like what was written in the nationalism curricula in Syria before it was recently amended by the regime to reduce the idea of glorifying the leader.
The “Madarat Kurd” site, pro-Democratic Union Party, published in 2015 a report in which it pointed to exaggeration in the ideological symbols included in primary school books, by focusing on Öcalan photos and the “PKK” flags.
As a result, these curricula perpetuate the rift between the Kurdish political spectrum on the one hand, and the people as well as the political authority on the other, by preventing the growth of any opinion contrary to the views of the Democratic Union Party.
It can be said that students are the main losers because of the imposition of these curricula, both in terms of the weakness of their content and educational value, in addition to the possibility of having to repeat full school classes in case the Syrian Democratic Forces loses some of its controlled areas, as happened with the students of the city of Afrin who will have to undergo the process of information probing and determining the level of entry to schools in the regime or opposition areas.
The Education Authority in the “self-management:” Our curricula are compatible with the principles of “democratic nation”
Enab Baladi newspaper had made contact with the Joint Presidency of the Education Authority in al-Jazira province to find out the reasons for the deep changes in the school curriculum and its effects on students, especially in light of studying in more than one language, and thus isolating children of the same region in schools.
Samira Hajj Ali, the official in this body, stressed that the curriculum of the regime “seeks one thought, one language, and one flag,” which called for “changing and developing curricula that commensurate with the democratic nation and the principles of coexistence, and each student would have the opportunity to study his language and know his history.”
On the type of change, Hajj Ali pointed out that they are changes from a scientific, intellectual and social point of view. She added: “It is natural that the curricula fit politics, and each country or nation has a specific teaching policy.”
Hajj Ali believes that the “correct history” of the various components in al-Jazeera area should be written in the hope that “children will be useful to their society and their homeland. Changing curricula is necessary.” She wondered: “How can we live together if we study one language?”
“We do not differentiate between the components because they are in one school, but in different classes. They meet in many opportunities, and study the languages of each other starting from the fourth grade, ” Hajj Ali said in response to a question about the negative impact of this educational approach on national unity.
Education in ISIS controlled areas…
A jihadist approach in the form of school curricula
The curricula taught in the “Islamic State” controlled areas in Syria are almost devoid of any real knowledge dimension, both in applied and theoretical scientific terms, while they all revolve around reinforcing the “Islamic State,” “Caliphate” and “Islamic Approach” ideas.
Since the beginning of the Islamic State spread in Syria, ISIS officials who are in charge of the educational process blew up all the curricula that are taught in the regime and the opposition controlled areas, believing that they contribute to the dissemination of “Takfiri Baathist ideology.” In video recordings, which were broadcasted by the media office of “Khalid ibn al-Walid,” affiliated with ISIS, ten-year-old children appeared setting fire to the textbooks, which they said had been prepared by “the Takfiri Nusairi regime.”
Enab Baladi newspaper monitored the curricula that are taught in ISIS held areas and analyzed their contents in an attempt to highlight their scientific value and their intellectual and political dimensions.
School levels centred on “physical preparation”
ISIS school levels are divided into three stages: the first is the primary stage, which consists of five grades, followed by the middle stage and it consists of the first and second preparatory grades, which correspond to grades six and seven in the order adopted by the regime schools and the Interim Government schools in opposition held areas. The last school stage is the preparatory stage and it consists of two grades: the first and second preparatory, which are equivalent to the eighth and ninth grades.
In addition to the Quran, faith and the Arabic language, students in the ISIS areas study the “Physical Preparation” curriculum during all school stages, which includes how to physically prepare for combat operations.
Physical preparation ranges from sports to the use of light weapons in the fifth middle grade, i.e., at the age of 13. The curriculum also provides details on types of weapons and how to repair and clean them.
The great interest in physical preparation is linked to the idea of “jihad to spread the Islamic Da’wah” and “the need to nurture a generation ready to fight for ISIS ideas.”
From Tanzania to Kazakhstan
ISIS map, according to the curricula taught in its regions, covers a wide area of the globe, extending from the centre of Africa (State of Tanzania borders) to the middle of Asia (Kazakhstan borders).
The idea of geography books in ISIS curricula focuses on the geographical coverage of the Islamic State, more than dealing with the topography of this region.
In the mentioned mapping, all real borders between countries are absent. The distinction is only made between “areas inhabited by a Muslim majority and areas inhabited by a majority of infidels.”
Scientific geographical data are mentioned as superficial contexts. For example, when dealing with the “Islamic State Mountains,” the name and location of the mountain (Taurus Mountains: Turkey) only are mentioned, without further details, which makes the student’s knowledge superficial.
Although intellectual guidance exists in the geography curricula of the Interim Government and the regime government, by focusing on matters and neglecting others and changing the forms of maps, it goes beyond guidance in ISIS curricula to almost complete absence.
History begins with the advent of Islam
Teaching history begins in the fourth grade, and focuses on the noble biography of the Prophet, and the beginnings of Islam, as “the history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” without talking about historical events outside the context of the emergence of Islam.
In the preface of the fourth grade history book , the objectives of the book are defined as “eliminating falsehoods which have been brought to history, and consolidating the jihadist values in the hearts of the nation’s people.”
During the discussion of the Prophet’s biography and the rise of Islam, the history curriculum focuses on Islamic invasions, rather than on events and other details, which is linked to the jihadist ideology and combat doctrine that ISIS wishes to teach children following its basis.
Although the Prophet’s biography is taught in the books of the Islamic religion within the regime and the Interim Government curricula, it is mentioned in a religious context in the faith sections, and is not limited as a historical dimension of the present.
The true meaning of the history science disappears within ISIS curricula, and ISIS seeks through its approaches to reach this by emptying all the sciences of their contents and converting them into Sharia sciences with general names.
Activities and tools in the form of Weapons
It is clear from the physics and chemistry curriculum developed by ISIS that it did not go far beyond the context of the content taught in the regime and the Interim Government curricula. This may be due to the difficulty of interfering in the scientific contents because they are linked to fixed rules.
Perhaps the only intervention is reflected in linking the topics of passages with verses of the Quran to indicate the link between the content and the religious context, and to serve it.
In the mathematics curriculum too, ISIS has not changed much of the scientific content, but the change is reflected in the tools of communicating content through training and activities. In the first stages, accounting is taught through counting the weapons or soldiers and carrying out mathematical operations on them.
These activities are common in children’s books between the ages of 7 and 12, the category on which the focus is greater, for the ease of impact and the potential of continued impact.
English is taught in the various school stages, as it is a universal language spoken by “all the people of ISIS,” but its teaching is carried out through texts that speak of “caliphate” and refer to cities that ISIS has previously made their centres, such as Raqqa and Mosul. Meanwhile, illustrations contain bearded men without showing details of their faces, due to security reasons.
Future perspective: the educational process, where to?
The educational scene in Syria extends to more than the four most important curricula in the regime, the opposition, ISIS and “self-management” areas. Some “self-produced curricula” are added to meet the minimum requirements of the educational process in areas that do not have any kind of books, in addition to intensive courses taught in schools run by international organizations and the UNICEF.
As for Syrian children in asylum countries, less than half of them are subject to different educational systems according to each host country, while 53% remain uneducated, according to estimates by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
In spite of this reality, the signs of the emergence of an increasingly ignorant Syrian generation are growing. In addition, the divergent curricula that millions of Syrian students received and are still receiving will cause a state of scientific and cognitive disparities, as well as intellectual conflicts resulting from the exposure to curricula saturated with different ideologies.
Despite the harshness of the general picture, educators and specialists in the psychology of children do not rule out the existence of some solutions that could bridge this gap over the long term.
A number of Syrian and Arab sides have provided several e-learning platforms based on internet sites and mobile applications. These platforms have adopted educational methods different from what Syrian students have been used to for decades. They presented visual materials and videos which explain in detail all the subjects of the Syrian curriculum, and which cover almost all levels of education, but generally focus on secondary and preparatory diplomas.
Among these platforms is the “Syrian School” project, which was launched in 2014 and targeted Syrian students abroad and those besieged inside Syria. The project was carried out under the auspices of the Syrian Education Commission “Alam,”based in Turkey.
So far, the Syrian School has produced 2,605 videos on its website and its YouTube channel. Through these videos the Syrian curriculum materials, which are revised by the “Alam” commission in the form of video-conferences dedicated to the levels of education from the fifth grade to the baccalaureate, are explained.
The “Syrian Electronic School” also provided a different experience for Syrian students when it was established in Syria in 2010 by the Syrian instructor Saad al-Din al-Mahamid in order to reduce the burden of “tutorials” on students’ parents.
After the deterioration of the educational situation in Syria, in 2012, the school changed its slogan to “for our students who could not reach schools,” noting that its goal is to reach students in areas that are no longer covered by the official curriculum, amid the proliferation of amended versions by the Syrian opposition bodies.
The National Center for the Distinguished at Tishreen University, located in the city of Latakia, provides educational materials and practical training on its website to “develop students’ skills to be capable of creativity and excellence and create high-performance professional cadres in an environment that fosters brilliance and promotes scientific excellence,” according to the Center’s vision which is published on its website.
Students’ parents can benefit from these educational sites in compensating for their children’s lack of scientific contents, whether they attend schools with updated curricula inside Syria or different schools in asylum countries. These platforms often go beyond ideology and focus on scientific content They rely mostly on the Syrian curricula that are similar in terms of content, whether the approaches of the Ministry of Education in the regime government, or the curricula of the Ministry of Education in the Interim Government, which helps to reduce the knowledge differences between students.
If homeschooling provides a good solution to overcoming the crises of the absence of education , this alternative can work as a temporary solution. Here, it is necessary to work on producing new, comprehensive, long-term and post-conflict curricula.
Azzam Khanji, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of “Education Without Borders,” believes that the current curriculum adopted by the Ministries of Education of the regime and opposition governments should be maintained, pending the formation of committees that can be useful and contemporary, and that keep up with scientific changes at the international level.
Khanji said in an interview with Enab Baladi: “There is a need for substantial material support, scientific committees, expertise and competencies, and this is not available at the moment. Many competencies have migrated, and although there are competencies, they are not grouped. So, maintaining the current curriculum, which is similar between the regime and the opposition areas, is an achievement, since it is a means to reduce the rift between students in the Syrian areas.”
Khanji pointed out that “there is a lot of effort that needs to be done. The support of education today is still very low. Education is not a top priority. Many organizations try to relief rather than to support education. Do they underestimate the importance of the subject and its seriousness to generations?”
To move in this direction, according to Khanji, there is a need to establish Syrian educational centres that can solve this issue. He added: “If the situation stabilizes in Syria, millions of students will be affected by the lack of education; so there must be parties which provide creative solutions.”
It seems that the biggest challenge in Syria in the next stage, if the political and military situation is resolved, is to reintegrate children into a process of education with strong and unified foundations based on inclusive school curricula, which requires the movement of local and international parties to rectify the matter.
Azzam Khanji, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of “Education Without Borders,” points out that curriculum moderators should be Syrians, with the possibility of benefiting from other expertise.
Commenting on the nature of the curricula that must be adopted in Syria in the future, Khanji said: “We need a curriculum that reinforces human values, where the Syrian child learns how to work collectively. The biggest flaw is that we are individually superior but not outstanding in teamwork.”
Khanji calls for focusing the curriculum on “the issue of extremism, the need to fight it through argument and evidence, and to raise the child not to be a victim of extremism, delinquency and crime.”