For Iraqi children living in areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State (IS), violence is ever present. From the youngest age, children are witnesses to and often victims of IS’s brutal repression. Schools are no safe haven.
As IS is pushed from its last strongholds, the realities of the IS-controlled education system have come to light.
Schools are used to model a generation of children in line with the ideology of the self-proclaimed Caliphate, and are a powerful tool to recruit child soldiers.
THE NEW CURRICULUM
When, in 2014, IS took over the major cities of Fallujah and Mosul, school materials were destroyed and replaced with a new curriculum.
Subjects like art, music, philosophy and geography were withdrawn. Biology teachers were told not to refer to evolution, mathematics teachers to remove any questions that refer to money lending, and Arabic teachers were forbidden from teaching ‘polytheist’ poetry.
In the new curriculum, history lessons consisted mainly of biographies of IS leaders and religious accounts of the early years of Islam, with an emphasis on military events. Subjects like “Islamic Jurisprudence” based on the group’s extremist interpretation of Islamic law were added.
The first attempts to implement this new program met stiff resistance. According to several reports, most residents of Mosul originally refused to send their children to school. “I will not let them go to an ISIS-run school just so they can learn about murder and extremism” one parent reportedly said. Some teachers rejected the new curriculum and were met with physical violence.
Despite the opposition, the curriculum was eventually implemented.
1 BULLET+ 1 BULLET = 2 BULLETS
The discovery of textbooks by Iraqi forces, coupled with accounts of escaped children, paint a damning picture of students’ experiences in IS schools. The pervasiveness of violence in every aspect of IS education is perhaps the most alarming element.
In a language manual -”English for the Islamic State”- common words like apple and ant appear alongside army, bomb, sniper and martyr. An app was also allegedly developed by IS to teach children the alphabet with words such as tank and gun.
A physical education textbook for six-year-olds entitled ‘The Islamic Caliphate is Remaining and Expanding’ showed illustrations of children carrying weapons and dressed in military clothes worn by IS fighters.
In Mosul, Iraqi forces found maths books for children aged 9 to 10 bearing a rifle made up of equations on the cover. Inside, maths problems featured tanks, IS flags and military aircraft.
Children have recounted that arithmetic classes were taught to them using formulas such as “one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets”- although the plus sign (+), associated to the Christian cross, was banned.
According to former IS students:
“Maths exercises included calculating how many Shi’a Muslim unbelievers could be killed by one car suicide bomber.”
BEATING A WORLDVIEW INTO CHILDREN
The strategy is simple: use even the most basic subjects as vehicles for ideology. The notion that other religious groups or non-Sunni Muslim sects should be considered as infidels is conveyed through standard mathematics.
Children have proved highly susceptible to the effects of this brainwashing campaign. According to an orphanage worker in Mosul, Shi’a and Yazidi orphans taken by IS were said to have referred to their own families as apostates after only weeks of schooling.
Gendered ideologies have been strictly enforced in IS schools . The word “woman”, in basic Arabic textbooks, is depicted by a formless black figure wearing the niqab covering.
At school, a strict dress code required boys to wear wide-legged pants and girls to cover up their faces and hair.
Eight year-old Shifa’a, interviewed by the BBC, says she was beaten on her first day for not wearing a headscarf or niqab. “I didn’t want to wear headscarves or niqabs. I didn’t want to even know how to put niqab on. They forced us.”
IS indoctrination didn’t stop when children walked out of the classroom.
“Children were encouraged to spy on their parents and inform the militants when they saw them smoking or breaking any other IS rules.”
Outside the classroom, even recreational activities prescribed by IS revolved around jihad — understood as a ‘martial practice’ — and incited children to fight.
According to Nikita Malik, from counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, these surreal policies served another goal: the normalisation of violence in children’s everyday life. It is, she says, the first stage of a three-step indoctrination process. The second stage consists in exposing children to extreme forms of violence, such as public floggings and beheadings. This lays the foundation for the third and last stage: physical training for jihad.
FROM CHILD TO EXECUTIONER
IS curriculum included physical education and ‘jihad education’ for 9 to 11 year-olds. Military training involved tactical fighting moves, use of ammunition and weapons, as well as urban guerrilla warfare techniques.
IS militants then recruited a selection of the children to join training camps. There, young fighters were taught how to kill. According to several accounts, some have even executed prisoners.
Boy orphans were particularly susceptible to such enrollment. Some underwent specific training to become so-called “cubs of the caliphate” — a network of child fighters and informers used by the militants in support of their operations.
When considered old enough, they were sent to the front, and reportedly used to carry out raids and engage in fighting. Some of these boys never returned.
THE JOURNEY FROM IS SCHOOLS
Despite the risks to their own lives, many tried to escape from IS-held areas. For those who made it and found their way to refugee camps, the relief was great. But the trauma of months or years of life under IS rule was a harrowing legacy.
Children and parents who arrived in those camps recounted a life of terror. “I was afraid of everything” 13 year-old Mohammad told journalists from ABC. Abu Ahmad, a father of eight who fled his IS-controlled town in the middle of the night, said his children “lived in constant fear” of IS militants.
Hundreds of children now benefit from social, educational and psychological support provided by the UN and various NGOs in camps for displaced people. Charities such as Terre Des Hommes have created play areas in camps to help children release the pressure and anxiety enjoying games banned in IS-held areas. The Norwegian Refugee Council has organised in-camp catch-up school programs in coordination with the “Back to school” initiative led by UNICEF.
But international attention and funding is severely lacking, and humanitarian organisations are struggling to cope with an ever increasing number of children who have escaped or have been displaced from liberated zones.
The fact that IS is about to be territorially defeated in Iraq does not mean the suffering of Iraqi children is coming to an end. The issue of education is perhaps more pressing than ever.
“Over half a million children have lived or are still living under IS rule, and 3.5 million children have missed out on school across Iraq. Four out of five children experience violent forms of discipline, many suffer from mental trauma.”
Their generation is the generation upon which the country will depend if it is to rebuild itself and achieve peace. The struggle for children’s education and mental health is also a struggle for Iraq’s future.
After escaping with her family and finding refuge in a camp, Shifa’a — the eight year-old beaten for not wearing the niqab, said: “I want to return … to school and when I grow older I want to become a doctor or a teacher. But more than anything, I want to be a journalist.”
Iraq will need many young girls like Shifa’a, and the wider world needs these girls to achieve their dreams.