On April 22, 2022, Hammam ‘Isa Al-Sheikh, a self-described “activist” based in Idlib, Syria and a supporter of the Syrian jihadi group Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful in the Idlib area, posted an image on his Telegram channel showing a page from the sixth-grade English textbook used in the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif (Home of the Noble Revelation) school system, which is affiliated with HTS. The textbook page, from a unit called “Muslim Heroes,” depicts Saudi-born Samer Al-Suwaylem aka Khattab Al-Shishani (the Chechen), who was a prominent commander in the Chechen jihad against Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, hailing him as “the greatest jihadist heroes [sic] in the modern era, the man who conquered the Russians at the height of their power, and through him God raised the banner of glory in Dagestan and Chechnya, [and] Afghanistan”.
Anti-Jihadi Media Outlet Accuses HTS Of Indoctrinating Children To Jihadi Ideology
On April 23, Jabhat Al-Nusra Violations (JNV), an anti-jihadi Syrian rebel outlet which vehemently opposes HTS, published a brief article with the accompanying image of a textbook page depicting Khattab Al-Shishani, titled, “HTS Invests in Religious Schools, Taking Advantage of the Lack of Support for the Educational Sector.” JNV asserts that “deteriorating conditions” in Idlib-area public schools have brought about an “unprecedented” proliferation of private schools, leading to the “monopolizing of education among the children of the wealthy.” The neglect of public schools has also led to the emergence of private religious schools with their own curricula and sources of funding – over which the Educational Department has no authority – the most prominent of which belong to the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif network. Quoting the Istanbul-based Syria TV network, JNV claims that Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif is supervised by HTS and caters primarily to the children of HTS members, as well as to orphans. JNV asserts that orphans, lacking a “father, who is considered the pillar of the family,” can be most easily “ideologized and indoctrinated” by HTS, and calls the spread of these religious schools “another nail hammered into the coffin of the educational process in Idlib.”
‘Al-Quds Al-Arabi’ Quotes Defenders Of HTS “Ideologized Religious Schools”
In this context, the London-based Qatari Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily published an article on April 25, noting that the publication of photos from the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif textbook depicting the jihadi commander had provoked “widespread controversy” and led to accusations that HTS is “imposing curricula propagating jihadism among children.” Al-Quds Al-Arabi contacted HTS supporter Hammam ‘Isa, who told the newspaper that the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif network, which runs 42 schools educating 13,500 boys and girls, has its own curriculum, supervised by HTS religious officials. One prominent administrator of the school network is Abu Jaber Al-Sheikh, the former commander of the jihadi group Ahrar Al-Sham, who briefly led HTS. According to ‘Isa, the schools emphasize shari’a studies, with the aim of “educating a thoroughly ideologized generation.”
Al-Quds Al-Arabi notes that HTS has been accused of indoctrinating children in the ideas of global jihad, while some have praised HTS for glorifying Khattab. Palestinian educator Ahmad Abu Farhah tweeted about the textbook: “If not for the blessing of liberation – as much as you accuse the mujahideen and rebels of mistakes – we would not see a lesson such as this in a sixth-grade English book […]”
The London-based daily also quotes a February 2022 article by Qatar-based Al Jazeera journalist Dr. Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, a supporter of the Syrian jihad, which defends the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif network against charges of indoctrinating children to jihadi ideals. In his article, Zaidan claims that the idea of establishing schools in Idlib to indoctrinate children was inspired by the Gaza school system and brought to Syria by a Gazan jihadi known as Abu Al-Zubayr Al-Filastini. Zaidan adds that the budget for the Dar Al-Wahy Al-Sharif schools is covered by the revenue HTS generates from running the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing between Idlib and Turkey, and that these funds help pay the salaries of the school network’s male and female teachers and staff. The network’s budget is supplemented by donors who believe that the schools “represent the spirit of the liberated areas and the spirit of their revolution” and are “a safety valve for the revolution and its spirit, currently and in the future.” Students pay a token fee of 50 Turkish lira (less than $4) per school term to “demonstrate seriousness.”
Zaidan finds it strange that people focus on “ideologized religious schools” in Idlib while ignoring the existence of similar Islamic schools in Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and even Western countries, adding that “there are ideologized religious schools for Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and all world denominations. There is no civilization or nation that does not have an ideologized religious identity.”
HTS-Linked Education System Strengthens Student Commitment To Islam, Revolution; Opponents Charge It With Spreading Unbelief, Normalization With Assad Regime
The HTS-linked bodies governing the Idlib area have implemented reforms to the local school system with the goal of strengthening student commitment to Islamic and revolutionary ideals. In contrast, jihadi opponents of HTS who view the group as too moderate have accused HTS-linked educational institutions, such as Idlib University, of adopting curricula which contain “unbelief,” and of normalizing relations with the Assad regime, and also criticize the students’ lack of Islamic knowledge and religious devotion.