Syrian children reenact scenes seen in ISIS videos, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma.
ISIS' 'caliphate' project in Iraq and Syria goes far beyond changing the region's map. The organisation seeks a comprehensive cultural, and social change, a major ideological revolution akin to those that took place in Iran, Russia and China. For ISIS, political power is a means to achieve these ideological goals. To consolidate its ideology, the group works to introduce radical cultural changes to the educational system. While some students, who long to continue their studies under the old system, have fled ISIS territory to regime-held areas, those who have stayed behind are subject to an education system shaped by ISIS' ideology, or most likely, no education at all.
Whilst claiming to be building a new ideological project, ISIS is also destroying the old order; reports from December 2014 suggest that the group has completely shut down Raqqa's education system in its battle to control the hearts and minds of young people. Internal communiqués from the group’s de facto Syrian capital, which serves as the testing ground for new aspects of ISIS governance, give a glimpse into a narrow-minded and proselytising curriculum.
ISIS has reportedly cut out a range of subjects deemed blasphemous or idolatrous from the arts, sciences, and humanities. Residents say they were obliged to burn old schoolbooks considered to violate ISIS’ narrow interpretation of Islamic law. Teachers, who were forced to undergo a ‘legitimacy course,’ were required to “delete any example in mathematics that refers the benefits of usury, democracy or election,” which ISIS views as detracting from tawhid (monotheism).
Accounts provide a glimpse into a narrow-minded and proselytising curriculum.
Teachers have been forced to sign documents of “repentance” for teaching subjects that ISIS considers heretical. Instead of teaching “the concept of patriotism or nationalism,” teachers must emphasise “belonging to Islam.” Meanwhile, ISIS’ rejection of ‘colonial’ borders is reflected by the order to “remove reference to the Syrian Arab Republic wherever found” and to “replace [them] with the Islamic State” in the classroom.
While there appears to be tremendous disparity in education between the various regions under ISIS control, leaked educational regulations and a number of reports from Syrian refugees show how ISIS uses education to embed its ideology in the schooling next generation.
A propaganda video featuring captive British photojournalist John Cantlie gives further insight into the image ISIS wishes to communicate to the outside world – a functioning state with its own education programme. In the video Cantlie explains, "One of the common accusations of the West is that under Islamic State education will suffer, religious studies and changes to the curriculum don't quite fit their image of progressive schooling... but here in Halab [Aleppo province in northwestern Syria], these young men are learning Quran recital and languages and with any luck they will form the mujahedeen for the next generation in this region."
While curbing the freedom and power of traditional schools, ISIS has introduced its own indoctrination 'bootcamps.' Videos of these educational centres, which produce 'Cubs of the Caliphate,' show young people learning an ISIS nasheed (anthem) by rote and being forced to fight each other, jeered on by their schoolmates. These videos show how children are commonly used by ISIS as a propaganda tool.
'Lion cubs,' are abducted from religious minorities.
Though indoctrination happens in many ways, Caroline Mortimer, writing in The Independent, explains that many of ISIS' ashbal, or lion cubs, are abducted from religious minority sects. In particular, hundreds of Yezidi boys have been captured and sent into radicalisation programmes, which force the boys to adopt new Muslim identities, practice beheadings on dolls, infiltrate and attack structures and cars, and carry out executions and military operations.
Capture and forced conversion represents one of many different methods of radicalisation. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Mia Bloom, an expert on children in conflict, explains that these 'Cubs' come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from children of local fighters and immigrants, to orphans or those who join willingly. Regardless of the context, ISIS recognises the generational effect that its 'Cubs' will have on the region.
ISIS' educational objectives present a major challenge for the international community. "The issue is not just what to do about ISIS right now, it's what to do with an entire generation," says Patrick Skinner, of the Soufan Group. "Once that indoctrination is in their hearts, it's impossible to get it out."
While governments are aware of the potential threat of ISIS using the next generation to ensure its legacy, they do not consider it as a problem that needs to be addressed now. "They're going to lose territory, they're going to lose soldiers," Skinner says, "But the way [ISIS] remain is by indoctrinating children." Mia Bloom, adds that responding to this huge task "will require a level of coordination and creativity not seen in any deradicalisation program so far," including "re-education so [children] can unlearn the distortions of the Islamic faith, as well as vocational training."
ISIS proudly presents its education as solely male, and based around study of the Quran, freely admitting that it is geared towards cultivating an ideologically indoctrinated generation of fighters. As one activist in Raqqa said, ISIS is "dramatically trying to drag the people of Raqqa to them [and] spread ignorance among the people of the city. This is a big threat to the future of an entire generation of children."