Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Education and flags: seminal for winning the hearts and minds of Syria’s new generation?

How do Salafi and Salafi-Jihadi groups in Syria use education and flags to foster supportive identities among school students in liberated areas’? These play a significant role in drawing the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Syrian society.

Prior to the uprising of March 2011, school students all over Syria had to study Ba’ath secular ideology as a core module of the broader subject of qaumiyya (‘nationalism’). Before starting a typical school day, students would gather in their schoolyard to salute the Syrian and Ba’ath flags while chanting ‘long live Assad, long live Ba’ath’. Since the uprising, there have been some radical changes made to this practice. Children in the so-called ‘liberated areas’ (areas that are under the control of the opposition) now start the school day by saluting Salafi and Salafi-Jihadi flags and chanting in praise of the Islamic Caliphate and the prophet Mohamed.

This situation is a prime example of the on-going debate between various theorists of identity and nationalism concerning the role of materialist and symbolic elements in crafting identity and in excluding or including members of a particular community. Materialists, like Ernest Gellner, emphasise the significance of factors such as education and the media in constructing identities. On the other hand, ethno-symbolists like Anthony Smith, argue that only symbols (such as those projected by flags and folk tales) can harness the necessary amount of emotional power for shaping identities.

The aim of this article is to analyse the interaction between education and flags in fostering a Salafi and a Salafi-Jihadi identity among school students aged between eight and seventeen years old in the ‘liberated areas’. I argue that the interaction between both variables plays a significant role in drawing the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Syrian society.

I focus on four cases; two concern Salafi groups (Liwa al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham) and two concern Salafi-Jihadi groups (Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham). The second part of this article focuses on the attempts of Salafi groups to project their identity by using education and flag; the third part examines the Salafi-Jihadi group’s quest to forge a Jihadi identity using these tools. But we begin with a brief summary of the state of the education system throughout the conflict.

Syria’s future generation: vulnerable to violent polarisation

In March 2013, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a detailed report, entitled ‘Syria’s Children: a lost generation?’ In this report, UNICEF warns that Syria’s current state of conflict is pushing future generations to the very brink of the abyss. The report revealed that one in every five schools in Syria has been destroyed and that half of the affected population are children. Moreover, Islamist militias in particular are conscripting hundreds of children who are supposed to be in classrooms. The report went on to argue that “[Children’s] dreams and opportunities for the future are being lost…and their views of their neighbours are coloured in ways that can create future generations of self-perpetuating violence.”

UNICEF is providing educational aid in a few of the more accessible areas in Syria, as well as in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Nevertheless, this aid is limited to supplying educational tools and building makeshift schools, rather than managing the educational process per se.

In fact, students at the refugee camps and those studying inside Syria follow different curricula. For example, students at Zaatari refugees’ camp in Jordan study the Jordanian curriculum, and students in Lebanon are enrolled in Lebanese schools. Likewise, makeshift schools at refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq teach the Kurdish curriculum. However, schools at refugee camps in Turkey teach the same Syrian curriculum that is being taught in areas controlled by the regime, yet “any lesson or module that talks about the regime and reflects the Ba’ath ideology has been excluded from the curriculum, such as the qaumiyya module and many lessons in the history books”.

In addition, all pictures of the Syrian flag (with two stars) on the schoolbooks have been altered to that of the Syrian revolutionary flag (with three stars). An activist at the Atmeh refugee camp in southern Turkey confirmed that the revolutionary flag is flown in the schoolyard where children gather to “chant freedom slogans and popular revolutionary songs”. Meanwhile, their fellow students at schools in the regime-controlled areas assemble beneath the Syrian flag to chant Ba’athist slogans.


Syrian flag. Credit: Ola Rifai

Syrian revolutionary flag. Credit: Ola Rifai

According to a teacher in one makeshift school in the Atmeh refugee camp: “it is impossible to keep the same curriculum which praises and promotes Ba’ath and Assad while these students fled their homes because of the regime’s artillery. It is also impossible to keep using the flag which symbolises the regime…we should raise our children in line with the goals of the revolution, and they should adhere to it… it is a new phase in Syria’s history. Thus, it needs a new education that goes in line with this”.

However, given its many fractures and inherent flaws, the Syrian opposition neither has an appropriate strategy nor the necessary financial support for tailoring the curriculum to suit the ‘new phase’ in Syria’s history. Although the Syrian National Coalition – the main political body representing the opposition – has established an ‘Office for Learning and Higher Education Affairs’, it has failed to develop a clear educational scheme. Nevertheless, Salafi armed groups inside Syria (who possess the necessary military and logistic capabilities to successfully implement an education policy) seem to be primarily interested in indoctrinating the minds of students with their ideology.

Education and flags in the Salafi quest for power: the cases of Liwa al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham

The rise of Salafism is a key dimension of the Syrian uprising and Salafis have proved to be a powerful actor capable of crafting a power triangle consisting of arms, money and public support. Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that seeks to revive al-salaf al-salih, which adheres to the way of life as practiced by the first Muslim communities. Salafism rejects secular concepts like nationalism and democracy, and prioritises the regulation of state and society in accordance with Sharia Law. More importantly, it displays a hostile logic towards other Islamic sects, particularly the Shiites.

During the three-year conflict in Syria, the growth of Salafi groups has mushroomed. These groups are now attempting to mobilise their followers and to reconstruct a Salafi identity for Sunni Syrians. This type of Salafi identity excludes all Syrians who hold different religious views. Among these groups, Liwa al-Islam (‘Islam Brigade’) and Ahrar al-Sham (‘Freemen of the Levant’) are the most influential. Each of these groups promotes the Salafi identity by using various tools, of which education and flags are particularly significant.


Salafi flag. Credit: Ola Rifai

Salafi flag. Credit: Ola Rifai 

Sheikh Zahran Alloush, a former prisoner who was given a presidential pardon in June 2011, founded Liwa al-Islam in September 2011. The Brigade comprises some 45,000 fighters and its strongest foothold is in eastern Ghuota in the suburbs of Damascus, where it has established a quasi-state. The Education Committee in Liwa al-Islam is responsible for “managing the educational process” in eastern Ghuota. It comprises various offices such as those for security, censorship and dawa’a (‘proselytism’). This committee instituted 90 schools in which some 20,000 students are enrolled. Iqrà (‘Read’), anwar al-Islam (‘Islam’s Lights’) and shabab al-ghad (‘Tomorrow’s Youth’) are the main organisations working under the umbrella of this committee. However, the Iqrà organisation is the strongest, running around 20 schools and twenty institutions teaching primary, secondary and graduate level students.

The Education Committee has revised the curriculum for all levels. It cut the qaumiyya and history modules while retaining the exact same curriculum for Arabic literature, maths and sciences. However, it altered the Islamic religious module and added more compulsory teaching hours in an effort to educate students regarding Islamic principles. Naturally, these principles were taught from a Salafi perspective. On a video-report uploaded to the Iqrà Facebook page, Mohamed Abu Ziad - the deputy manager of the Iqrà organisation - stresses that the curriculum focuses on religious affairs and attempts to “raise a generation that has a sense of pride in its religion”. In schools, female teachers wear strict Islamic costume: a dark hijab and a long coat.

Teacher in Islamic dress. Credit: Ola Rifai

Additionally, female students are not allowed to mix with their male peers. Owing to logistic difficulties and the danger of Syria’s current war-torn state, students do not gather in the schoolyard and the schools do not fly flags. Nevertheless, posters of revolutionary and Salafi flags and Islamic slogans adorn the walls of classrooms. One example is a poster that reads: “Mohamed is our leader, Allah Akbar is our slogan and freedom is our demand.”

Salafi poster. Credit: Ola Rifai

Another reads: “the gun is the mujahed’s weapon and the pencil [referring to education] is this generation’s weapon”.

Salafi poster. Credit: Ola Rifai 

A female teacher in a niqab surrounded by young students appears in the same video-report, assuring the camera that “the school day starts with reading Quran and the daily duaa, before beginning tutorial sessions on maths and Arabic literature”. She emphasises that teachers “seek to apply a religious dimension to all teaching modules, as much as they can”. According to her, the school day should end with ‘recreational’ activities, such as the singing of religious songs.

In October 2013, the Education Committee of Liwa al-Islam organised a festival to honour top students, which was broadcast live on Al-Jazeera and was attended by students, teachers, clergymen and military officials. Quoting from the Quran and Hadith, a spokesman for the Education Committee initiated the ceremony by signifying the importance of education in Islamic doctrines and stressing that education is “an obligation for each Muslim”. Sheikh Abou Abdul Rahman, the Chief of the Sharia Committee (which works under the umbrella of Liwa al-Islam and seeks to impose Sharia law) calls on teachers to educate students regarding Islamic principles, and emphasises that all sciences should be used to serve Islam. For him, the teachers’ main mission is to “bring back the generation from [Ba’ath] decades of darkness to the light of Islam […] to bring back the generation which was raised on Ba’ath and atheism [ideologies] to Islam”. Cheerful students appear chanting an Islamic song that summarises the Sheik’s points:

“A dawn shines on our tomorrow… it tells the glory of our civilization…Islam’s flag came back [to us] to restore the glory of our nation…our life will flower through religion…and by education, we shall build the country in a way that satisfies our lord”.

Using a similar rhetoric to that of Liwa al-Islam (albeit in a less organised and more radical manner) Ahrar al-Sham manipulates education and the use of the flag in order to reproduce a Salafi identity. This Salafi armed group comprises between 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, whose main goal is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Sheikh Hassan Aboud – who was a prison mate of Zahran Alloush, and who currently collaborates with Alloush under the umbrella of the Islamic Front – established Ahrar al-Sham in late 2011 just after his release from prison. Given the vigorous competition for hegemony between the different militias on the ground, Ahrar al-Sham does not have absolute power in any particular town. Rather, its presence is limited to a few villages across the rebel areas in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Al-Raqa and the northern suburbs of Damascus.

Although it has not customised the existing curriculum nor founded an independent educational office, Ahrar al-Sham utilises education to indoctrinate students with Salafi ideology. It has rehabilitated a few schools in northern Aleppo and instituted makeshift schools in many mosques. Largely, their lessons focus on Islamic sciences because, as one teacher emphasises: “[the aim of education is] to raise a new generation that is different from the previous one, a generation that has an inherent Islamic personality”. A televised report uploaded on the Ahrar al-Sham website shows dozens of students gathering at a mosque in Aleppo that has been converted into a school and decorated with massive Salafi flags. The curriculum is “centred on the Quran and Hadith sciences, in addition to maths, Arabic literature, and foreign languages”. All female teachers wear the niqab, and some students wear a Salafi headband while reading from the Quran and chanting Islamic slogans. Another video reveals footage of a makeshift school at a mosque in al-Raqa, where young students gather around a male teacher wearing Islamic costume. Also, Ahrar al-Sham rehabilitated two schools in al-Houla, northern Homs, in which the Salafi flag hangs in each classroom.

In May 2013, the group held a graduation ceremony for its students at a mosque in Madaya town, northwest Damascus. Soldiers, Sheikhs, teachers and students attended this event, in which students competed in a quiz about Islamic principles. In a similar vein is the ma’had ashbbal al-‘akida (‘the [Islamic] doctrine cubs’) institution, which is directed by the Ahrar al-Sham militia in Sahel al-Ghab in the suburbs of Hama. The institution organised a festival to honour students who successfully memorized parts of the Quran. Huge Salafi flags were flown during the event, and 500 Syrian Lira (around GBP 2.50) was given to each student as a prize.

Creating tomorrow’s jihadis: the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham

Violence, sectarian polarisation, class conflict, regional and international struggle for hegemony, the failure of Syria’s opposition and the policies of the Syrian regime are the chief factors that have led to the increasing dominance of Jihadism in Syria. Various Jihadi groups have surfaced during the conflict, amongst which the Nusra Front (NF) and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are the most solid.

The ISIS and the NF call for the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate and adopt an anti-secular and anti-western agenda. This agenda differs from that of Salafi groups in that it advocates global Jihad. In contrast, Liwa al Islam and Ahrar al-Sham limit their jihad to the Syrian state. NF and ISIS also conduct similar approaches in their attempts to establish footholds in post-Assad Syria.

To this end, they deploy both soft and hard power tactics. On the one hand, they provide people with security and bread; on the other hand, they rule with an iron fist and are remorseless in their hostility towards secular and other Islamist rivals. More importantly, both groups manipulate education and the use of flags in order to construct and project a Jihadi identity.

JN is an al-Qaeda affiliated group that was formed in January 2012. Since then, it has conducted several successful military operations, which has increased its legitimacy in the eyes of some Syrians. As a resident of Idlib puts it: “JN comprises the best fighters, who are always on the frontline”. Although JN has the appropriate capacities and support with which to assert itself, it does not have absolute control over any particular city or town in Syria, unlike the ISIS and Liwa al-Islam. Nevertheless, JN’s fighters are distributed throughout various Syrian cities, specifically in the suburbs of Damascus, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Dar’a, where they endeavour to promote Jihadi ideology in their manipulation of education and flags.

In late 2013, for example, JN instituted ma’had ansar al-din (‘partisans of religion’s institution’) in Dar’a, which enrols male students aged between ten and fifteen and teaches them Jihadi ideology, in addition to maths and Arabic literature. In a video-report uploaded to JN’s YouTube channel, dozens of students - some wearing Salafi headbands - chant “our master Mohamed is our leader forever” in a classroom that is decorated with Salafi-Jihadi flags and Islamic posters. The main mission of this school, according to one of its teachers, is to: “counter all attempts by God’s enemies who seek to prevent people in Sham from coming back to the right religion and ideology, and who instituted mixed schools which teach inappropriate curriculums. We are obliged to [counter these attempts] because as Islam’s Shikh Ibn Taimiyya says ‘religion would not flourish without a book that would guide and a sword that would prevail’. So we inaugurated this school to raise the generation in a good way and to teach [students] what they have been deprived of for decades”.

The video shows two teachers in Salafi clothing examining students on religious affairs. It is to be assumed that the teaching of this topic is heavily biased in favour of Jihadism. One teacher stated that entertainment activities include visits to mujahedeen and classes on using weapons. At the end of one school day, students gathered under a Jihadi black flag. One of them shouted, “What is our goal?” In response, the others pointed their index fingers up to the flag and chanted: “It is Jihad, it is Jihad, it is Jihad”.

In the same way, JN establishes schools and runs educational processes at mosques in the suburbs of Idlib, Aleppo and al Raqa. According to a resident of al-Tabaqa, western al-Raqa: “parents send their children to JN schools either because they do not have any other option or because they believe in JN ideology. Given the wide popularity JN enjoys in my area, I suggest the second motive is the most likely”. JN also orchestrates festivals in which students usually take the stage alongside armed fighters. For example, in October 2012 JN organised a ceremony to celebrate Eid in Binish, northwest Idlib. During the ceremony, one of JN’s young students sang to the audience “we are your soldiers, Osama [bin laden], we are martyrdom seekers”, while other cheerful students waved Jihadi flags.

Like the NF, ISIS utilises education and flags in order to encourage young students to adopt a Jihadi identity. ISIS was formed in April 2013, when some fighters defected from JN to expand the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – an al-Qaeda affiliate group active in Iraq since 2006 – to include al-Sham, which, in the context of global Jihad, refers to the Levant. ISIS took over al-Raqa only one month after JN and other Islamist groups took control of the city, and ISIS came to be the de facto authority there. Additionally, its fighters are present in the suburbs of Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al-Zour, where they have established schools to teach Jihadi logic.

A school was established in September 2013 in Jrablus town, northern Aleppo, and hundreds of male students were enrolled there. The school teaches Islamic sciences as core modules alongside maths, Arabic literature and English language. However, it excludes any module that focuses on Syria’s history. Another school was inaugurated in northeast Aleppo in late 2013. A video-report of this school shows students gathering around a Jihadi tutor, who is teaching them the Quran. A young student appears in the video declaring his admiration for Jihad: “I wish to become a mujahed when I grow up, in order to fight all tyrants who do not rule according to God’s law”. Dozens of students then hold up large Jihadi flags while chanting fervently: “God is our leader… America is their leader…Allah Akbar”.

In al-Raqa city, ISIS monitor all schools, ban the teaching of history modules, and segregate female and male students in schools. ISIS also seized many churches and transformed them into makeshift schools for teaching Jihadi ideology. According to an activist in al-Raqa: “parents enroll their children at ISIS schools because they fear ISIS fighters, yet some people also believe in ISIS ideology and hence they want their children to be educated at ISIS schools”. Indeed, ISIS attempts to create a personality cult for itself by using banners as visual propaganda, and by spreading fear amongst the people.

A resident of al-Raqa described the all-pervasiveness of the ISIS presence: “You can see ISIS fighters hanging out in the city while wearing explosive belts and holding guns. Banners, flyers and posters that reflect their ideology are everywhere”.

This situation could have many fatal implications for children. In the first place, there is the devastating psychological effect that witnessing violent trauma first-hand would have on children, some of whom are already suffering from different types of trauma. Secondly and more importantly, the presence of the fighters contributes to the styling of the mujahed (by whom they are taught) as heroes and role models. In this light, ISIS attempts to endear itself to children by organising festivals, in which fighters – wearing Islamic clothing and explosive belts – distribute toys and play with children, while black Jihadi flags flutter in the air.

In September 2013, for example, hundreds of children and men gathered in the al-Raqa main square, where ISIS launched a massive festival. In a video report for this festival, children can be seen joyfully chanting Jihadi songs having listened to the story of a Finnish ISIS fighter who decided to join the Jihadis in Syria after he saw the ‘murder’ of his fellow Muslims. The Finnish fighter assures the audience that he came to institute the Islamic Caliphate. In his words, “those who wish to go to hell should choose democracy, while those who wish to go to heaven should be patient and support the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate”.

Conclusion

In their struggle for empowerment and search for a permanent place in post-uprising Syria, Salafi groups on the ground instrumentalise education and flags to construct identities for Syria’s new generation. This identity includes and excludes other Syrians according to its religious principles. By teaching Salafi logic instead of Syrian history, and by waving Salafi flags instead of the Syrian flag, students are more likely to associate themselves with Salafism rather than with Syrian-ism. This surely has potentially fatal implications for Syria’s already fractured national identity.

This new generation that will have to rebuild the war-torn country is being subjected to a relentless process of polarisation; its members are being forced to pledge their allegiance to different flags. How can Syrian students who are used to saluting the revolutionary, Salafi, Salafi-Jihadi or the Syrian flags be made to salute one national flag?

What new curriculums can be taught to a generation that has been indoctrinated with conflicting ideologies (Salafi and Baathist)? A solid strategy to address these questions should be among the top priorities of any future Syrian government if it genuinely wishes to build a strong Syria with a cohesive community.


Ernest Gellner Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwel Publishing, 1983) 

Anthony Smith Ethnos-­symbolism and Nationalism: A cultural approach (U.S.A. Routledge, 2009) 

Author’s interview via Skype with a resident of Atmeh refugee camp in Turkey, 22/1/2013 

Author’s interview via Skype, 23/1/2013

Author’s interview via Skype, 22/1/2014

Author’s interview via Skype, 1/8/2012

Ibn Taimiyya is a mediaeval Islamic scholar (d. 1328) who issued a controversial fatwa stating that Alawites and Shi’ites are not Muslims.

A jihadi hand sign, which usually denotes the quest for martyrdom

Author’s interview via Skype, 20/1/2014

Author’s interview via Skype, 29/1/2014. Also see the report video about this school on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I57SVkoF8ik

About the author

Ola Rifai is a research fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews university. Her research interests include the international politics of the Middle East and identity, nationalism and ethnic conflict in the region. She is currently working as a freelance political consultant for various research centres and NGOs.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.