Hardline Islamic State affiliate shuts schools in southwest Syrian town after teachers refuse to adopt their curriculum

Today, Imtithal is secretly teaching school-aged girls from her home in southwest Daraa.

Until last week, the 40-year-old schoolteacher worked at one of the elementary schools in Tseel, a town in the southwestern pocket of Daraa province known as the Yarmouk Basin.

Early last week, the Islamic State affiliate that controls Tseel stormed and shut down the dozen or so schools serving the area's children.

The IS-linked, hardline militia Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) has controlled Taseel since it launched a surprise attack against opposition forces in the area this past February.

Within the territory it controls, JKW enforces a strict, punishing legal code similar to that used by the Islamic State elsewhere in Syria.

When the new school year started in September, JKW members started visiting schools in Tseel to convince teachers and administrators to adopt their curriculum—what their members call “the curriculum of the prophet.” Educators refused.

“Nothing will force us to teach our children an outdated curriculum and beliefs,” schoolteacher Imtithal tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

Schoolchildren in Tseel on January 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Tseel News.

In response to their refusal, JKW personnel stormed the girls’ elementary school where Imtithal teaches last Monday and kicked out students and staff.

After being forced out of the school, Imtithal, her colleagues and students moved to the town square and broke into a spontaneous protest of the school closures. JKW dispersed the protest with live bullets, she says.

All the schools in Tseel were closed that day, and remain shuttered.

For now, Imtithal continues to teach her students from her house at great personal risk, so they are not “deprived of education because of the irresponsible, bullheaded actions of the Islamic State.”

Q: Could you describe for us what happened last week at the elementary school in Taseel where you teach?

I was giving a lesson to my students, and everything was going fine. Then at 11 o’clock [Monday] morning, a large group of Islamic State members entered the school.

[Ed.: Throughout the interview, Imtithal refers to Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed using the name of its parent organization, the Islamic State (IS).]

They stormed my classroom and demanded that I leave with all of my students. They said they were preparing to re-educate [the students] using the curriculum of the prophet, meaning their curriculum.

When I refused, they pointed a rifle at my head to force me to leave. My students were horrified.

After IS kicked all of the students and teachers into the street, we gathered in the [nearby] square and began to protest the Islamic State’s decision. We rejected its decision to close the school and force its curriculum on us.  There were about 200 of us, between students and teachers. We threw stones at IS cars along with women from nearby homes.

The protest was [eventually] broken up after [IS members] fired live bullets. As we went off to our homes, we chanted that “we will not accept your curriculum.”

The Islamic State’s curriculum is incapable of raising an educated generation. If someone doesn’t know a thing about morals and building [a future] for this generation, then how are they going to put together a curriculum that we can accept?

The Islamic State also aims to marginalize women in society and keep them completely ignorant. 

Q: Were you and your fellow colleagues afraid of any violent reprisals from JKW authorities?

The Islamic State does not show any sympathy or mercy to men. They arrest them, torture them and execute them. However, women are different.

Many IS women enter and exit opposition-controlled territory. If the Islamic State arrested women [in Tseel], opposition forces could in turn arrest women married to IS members in rebel-held territory. 

A sharia institute in the Yarmouk Basin operated by Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed on May 18.

Q: Have you seen any changes in JKW’s policy on education since the protest last week?

Sadly, the Islamic State has not given in to our demands and only grew more vicious. That night, IS arrested and threatened 16 local leaders in Tseel, accusing them of inciting the students to protest. 

The Islamic State released those leaders the next day on the condition that they sign a pledge saying that there would be no more demonstrations, or else they would face severe punishment.

The positive impact of the demonstration, though, was that it broke through the fear that fills any place where an IS member is present. We sent a message to IS that education is a red line. 

Q: Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed seized Tseel in February. Have JKW members attempted to take control of education in the town before last week?

After the Islamic State entered, they tried to force residents and teachers to adopt their curriculum, but they refused. Students are taught the regime’s curriculum and teachers covertly receive their salary from regime-held areas. Teachers and employees, myself included, would make up excuses—going to a see a doctor, buying supplies—to exit IS territory and claim their salaries.  

IS was not able to secure teachers and salaries [to teach their curriculum], so they had to accept the curriculum already in place. The students completed their second semester of studies and then had their summer break.

When the new school year began, IS started to pressure us to teach its curriculum. When we did not heed their orders, they sent members to kick us out of the schools and close them.

Q: What does Tseel look like today? How can the town’s children receive an education?

After the prominent residents signed the pledge to not demonstrate, the town has been calm but tense. Nobody moves around or leaves their home unless necessary. The streets are empty, and schools are still closed. 

I am now secretly teaching my students in shifts in my home so that they aren’t deprived of education because of the irresponsible, bullheaded actions of the Islamic State.  

What I am doing is not haram—our messenger [the Prophet Muhammad] prescribed that people be educated. 

We will not stop opposing the orders of the Islamic State, even if we must stay calm for a period to protect the lives of the local leaders. Nothing will force us to teach our children an outdated curriculum and beliefs.

The Islamic State’s latest actions on education are a red line for us, and I do not expected things to end here. 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.