The Struggle for Syria’s Soul  

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

By Oula Abdulhamid 

A personal account of Baathist and Islamic indoctrination in Syria’s schools

Mine was not a normal childhood with clean schools, happy classrooms and unbiased education. But like ninety percent or more of Syria’s students, my personal education experience in Damascus was very similar to a military camp experience spent in soviet-style buildings that felt like prisons! Indeed, we were prisoners inside our classrooms. But our prison-guards had agendas that at their heart were irreconcilable, and seem to have been united only in their belief that we, the embodiments of the future and its true heirs, needed to be subjugated.

Growing up under the Baath Party system, all that we really learned was how to obey the authorities, because they were in control of every aspect of our lives. We were not treated as individuals with unique personalities, but as objects that needed to be subjugated, controlled and even militarized. We were all brainwashed and pressed into the service of our de facto masters, the Assads in their holy resistance against enemies near and far. Our educational system was never meant to liberate and empower, but to shame, humiliate and make us all conform to the dictated norms of obedience without question! Fear and humiliation were our school curriculum!

There is no way out! Systematic dehumanization and brainwashing under Assad regime begins at a very early age. Indeed, our indoctrination began in the First Grade. Rote memorization was the essence of our education. Any deviation from the rules could result in expulsion; we were always threatened. There was no place for discussion or critical thinking. In elementary school, most of us were pressed irrespective of our will into the Baath Vanguards Organization (Talae’a al-Baath), founded by Hafez al-Assad in 1974. Whether the child was enrolled in a public school or one of the few remaining semi-private schools catering to the elite, he or she was subject to Baath indoctrination. “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” is the Baath Party motto that we needed to memorize “exactly like we memorize our names” Military Studies teachers told us. We had to write it down on our notebooks, on the top of the chalkboards, and repeat it every morning at the beginning of the school day as well as at the end of some long and boring lectures often delivered by our Baathists. “Unity” referred to pan-Arabism, while “Liberty” and “Socialism” came as expression of hatred towards the imperialist capitalist West.

One of the main features of our school uniform in elementary school was a triangular neck ascot meant to represent cooperation between the family, the school and the Baath Party.  We had to wear these ascots at all times, and especially during our field trips to various state monuments most of which meant erected to celebrate the so-called “glorious achievements” of Hafez Al-Assad. Field trips were serious affair, they were not designed for us, children, to play!   I often managed to get conveniently sick to avoid them. The fact that my maternal grandmother was a family doctor helped me get the necessary reports.

In Middle School, a special book series dedicated to Baath ideology became part of our instruction. The series was designed around a mythified version of Syria’s modern history where the role of the Baath Party was made central to her rise. We studied Hafez al-Assad’s life in detail; his Alawite background, childhood and teenage years and how he “saved” Syria by becoming her president!  The speeches and sayings of the Eternal Leader were also central to this National Education Curriculum. “Our leader forever, the faithful and eternal Hafez al-Assad.” was one of the slogans we were forced to repeat daily. Our Military Studies also began at this stage. Teaching us discipline was at the core of our education. And discipline meant breaking down our sense of individual worth and self-respect. The 1970 Syrian Corrective Revolution that brought him to power was a subject we could not evade even during our Art classes. Teachers of Art often ordered us to draw Assad’s Corrective Revolution “mighty” accomplishments such as The Euphrates Dam.

But breaking and brainwashing us was also the concern of another set of teachers at this stage, namely our religious instruction teachers. For all his bravado about secularism and all his problems with Islamists, Hafez Al-Assad never dared to completely oppose them, by trying to modernize the educational system that is, or society for that matter. Instead, he gave a free hand in social and educational affairs to the most unenlightened representatives of Islam. So long as they shied away from politics and preached obedience to the ruler, traditionalist preachers can do no wrong. So, while the first set of teachers in our school system, our National Education and Military Studies instructors, were motivated by a secular ideology and predominantly Alawites, our religious studies instructors were inspired by a traditional and unenlightened interpretation of Sunni Islam. Both believed in the holiness of their teachings and the insignificance of our humanity as their pupils.

The school in which I spent my teen years – an all-girls school (gender mixing happened only in some private schools) – was located in traditional Baramkeh Neighborhood in Damascus. Like so many other schools in the country, it was named after an Alawite figure, Ali Fareed Khallouf. Khallouf was supposed to have done something heroic like dying in the 1973 war against Israel, but, frankly, I am not sure. No one told us. It seems you can name schools, highways and monuments after Alawite figures who are not Assad, but you cannot really talk about them, lest people forget how great Assad was.

I never really believed in Assad’s greatness, after all, I came from as family of dissidents. My maternal grandfather was arrested back in 1980 by Assad’s security forces who accused him of being a member of the illegal Muslim Brotherhood movement. He was not, but he was an Islamist and an author, he called for non-violence; criticized both of the Baathists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed his ideas frightened them! He died under torture thereafter in 1982, the same year of the Hama Massacre. But my grandmother would not learn of his fate for decades to come. I grew up watching her waiting for him to come back, getting anxious every time someone knocks on her door. He never came back.

Begin the granddaughter of an Islamic dissident was hard for a girl attending the Syrian school system. Baathist and Alawite teachers treated me with suspicion if not downright disdain, even though, I was clearly liberal in my lifestyle, which, in itself, did not endear me to my religious studies instructors who treated me like a traitor to my family heritage and my grandfather’s memory. Both the nature of our educational system and my family background conspired to make my experiences in school a rather suffocating. Like so many girls at the time, it was the walls of our school’s bathroom stalls that offered me the only opportunity to rebel and express myself. That was the only space where you do not see the Assads’ photos hung on walls, the father and sons. I used to take out all my frustration against my teachers there, especially my Baathist and Islamist indoctrinators. We used to sneak in our markers to draw our rebellious graffiti. But I also had my subtle ways of defying authority.

The humiliation and the yelling was our morning breakfast everyday then we line up to salute the flag and to sing the national anthem at 7:30 am after we get checked from head to toe by the Military Studies teachers in case we were missing a uniform piece. I hated that soldiers’ dark-green uniform, badleh, that we had to wear! We feared them the most, they had the upper hand, they were cruel! During my Military Education class, when our Alawite teacher came dressed provocatively in her civilian outfits like she was going to a late-night party, I made a point of rolling down my sleeves and buttoning up my uniform jacket, as though I were conservative, which really irritated her. But during my Religious Instruction class, where the teacher always admonished me to wear a headscarf, I made a point of rolling up my sleeve, unbuttoning my jacket and shirt and wearing a generous amount of perfume just to annoy her. I succeeded of course, but at the cost of putting up with further sermons, pressures and alienation. Not all my classmates were willing to go that far.

Surprisingly for my peers, I was yelled at the least, not only was I the top student every semester but also because I had no fear to express myself, and to speak back. The Alawite teacher of Military Studies even appointed me the leader of my class. Honestly, I did hate that job, but I used it to help my friends and get them out of trouble, which made me popular. But because I came from a Sunni background, and I was obviously not interested in religion, my Alawite Baathist teachers thought me ripe for recruitment in the ranks of the local chapter of Baath youth. The headmistress of the school, an Alawite, tried her best to get me to attend after-school Baath Party functions, but I always found ways to evade her. She could have threatened me with expulsion and forced my hand, but, for some reason, she never did. Perhaps, she admired my rebellious streak. In time, though, the pressure did become too much for me to bear, and I decided to leave school and ended up pursuing my Baccalaureate degree as an independent student away from the clutches and intimidation of Baathists and Islamists.

In school, there were some strong self-imposed limits on our willingness to defy authority. We never ventured into politics. We never wrote on our bathroom walls how we really felt about the regime, Baath, or Islamism. However, my only trustworthy classmate and I had our small political talks on the way back home. We talked in riddles, the Mukhabarat were all around  us, we feared being reported even by our classmates! These taboos had to wait for a revolution before they could be broken. Now that they are, we can clearly see that Baathism and Islamism were nothing more than a thin cover for sectarianism and authoritarianism. Our fight for freedom will not be complete until we are rid of both. Considering what is taking place on the ground, the possibility for immediate success seems remote. But not too long ago, the possibility for revolution, for breaking the barrier of fear, also seemed remote. But here we are.

Still, today, I fear that Assad’s dictatorial Baathist rule is slowly giving way not to democratic rule, as we had hoped, but to Islamist rule, as we always feared. In many ways, Islamists were also an Assadist creation. The Assads like to play a game of divide and conquer; creating extremists in all camps and using them to scare the other, while projecting themselves as the secular peacemakers. Now, the arrangement is clearly backfiring, but the ultimate losers are the Syrian people. The Assads might still control a wholesome swath of territory and hold some power, but Islamist groups have taken control of other parts, and Kurds seem poised to declare autonomy in their own areas. National sovereignty and territorial integrity seem to have been irrevocably compromised, and liberal democracy has returned to being a long-term project. The fight for real freedom and justice in our country will have to continue, and we will be for the most part on our own. The leaders of the free world, led by the United States, have shown us over the last few months that they cannot be relied upon for support in this regard. Unfortunately, the enemies of freedom have a far better working relationship, and they tend to approach the task at hand with far greater sense of urgency.

The fight to make Syria a country for all Syrians will be Herculean.

An abridged version can be read at NOW

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