Brainwashing under the Islamic State

The Islamic State group claimed the lives of two Chinese citizens who were kidnapped in Quetta last month by armed gunmen in southwestern Pakistan's restive Balochistan province (Representative Image) Photograph:( Reuters )

WION Milan, Italy Apr 24, 2017, 03.48 PM (IST) Daniele Pagani

“You have a BKC with 42 shots and in front of you there are seven blasphemous and apostate people. You are asked to equally distribute the shots through sniping the following: An apostate, a Sahawat, a crusader (Christian), an atheist, a Salouli (Saudi), a Rafidi (Shiite), and a spy.”

This is an exercise meant for 8-year-old children found in a Mathematics book used in Islamic State (IS) controlled territories in Syria. This sample was recently published on the report The Curricula in the Islamic State written by Sarmad al-Jilane for the Sound & Picture Organisation.

When I was 8 years old I studied in a peaceful and rather wealthy Europe and this was the kind of Mathematics exercises that our teachers used to give us: “There is a birthday party and in order to make all the children happy, Daniele’s mother decides to equally distributes some biscuits. If we have 54 biscuits and there are 9 children at the party, how many biscuits will each child receive?”

I do not I think I really need to highlight the difference. 

Beside undoubtedly teaching a bit of mathematics, the real objective of the IS-made exercise is to brainwash children and inculcate into their young minds brutality, violence and sectarianism. In many part of the world, an 8-year-old child would not divide his or her society on the basis of the attitude towards religion. I can quite safely say that when I was in second standard, no child in my class even knew what an apostate was and if they did, they would not probably have considered him as an enemy.

This is not because the Western education is somehow better, but just because we were not taught to. The Islamic State survives also thanks to sectarian hatred and teaching children to hate whoever thinks differently is vital for the organisation.

It is not only about concepts, but also about weapons. I can’t help but wondering how many of our readers do know what a BKC is. A BKC, more widely known as PK machine gun, is an automatic rifle which can be both used by the infantry or mounted on vehicles. It shoots hundreds of projectiles per minute up to a distance of 1.5 kilometres. It is an instrument of death which is smuggled and widely used in West Asia. I learned all this during my last trip to Mosul as a war correspondent. A child in Raqqa learns it at 8 years old.

The report highlights how the presence of war, guns and violence is widespread over all the school books that the IS has created. When talking about the Arabic language course, the report reads that, “The textbook is rich in violence and hatred that ISIS feeds to children; For instance, the first grade textbook contains many images of various weapons such as machine guns, tanks, planes, and masked soldiers engaged in combat”.

In its curricula, the Islamic State gives importance to what they call "Physical Development" which, according to the report’s authors, is more similar to martial art. The teacher’s book cover is rather self explanatory and is reminiscent of the cages where Mixed Martial Art fighters challenge each other in bloody tournaments.

The "Physical Development" teacher’s book cover. Courtesy: Sound & Picture. (Others)


Since the Islamic State gained control over swathes of land in Syria and Iraq in 2014, this is what their education has imposed in the schools they run. Citizens have little options since education is not diversified at all. In the beginning there was the possibility to enrol children in private schools which used different curricula, but then the IS closed them all. Now the choice is between sending children to "government" schools or not sending them to school at all.

According to the report, out of the 115 schools active in Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital city of the Islamic State, only 24 remain actives. Twelve for boys and twelve for women, since the IS do not admit mixed schools nor difference of gender between teachers and students. 

Education is a dangerous tool in the hands of any totalitarian government. Perhaps we can say that establishing a monopoly over education is the most important objective of a dictatorship which aims at surviving in the future.

Right after coming to power, most dictators and authoritarian governments create a commission to review books in order to re-shape history in their favour. Changing the narrative of historical figures helps in creating new enemies and heroes, a crucial need for the regime.

The biggest effort is normally made towards the primary school, where knowledge is easier to control; Children this young learn mostly new things and they do not have enough terms of comparisons to decide what is true and what is not. 

Brainwashing children through a biased education is an investment on the future. If the IS succeeds in doing so, it will create a generation of blind followers who will be ready to do whatever they are ordered without questioning. 

The effort the IS is taking, despite the military defeats they are clearly suffering, to push their curricula into the children’s mind tells us once again how the organisation does not perceive itself as temporary or limited to the present time. 

It is also interesting to notice that, despite condemning all Western countries as enemies, the IS curricula teaches in the English language, suggesting that the terrorist organisation does not perceive itself as only a local group. According to the report, the Islamic State established on the ground even schools in foreign languages, in order to teach to sons and daughter of foreign fighters coming from non-Arabic speaking countries.

The Islamic State is not a hyper-local group made only of crazy shouting fanatics, but an organisation with a global view and the capability to address their political necessities.

In all this process of forced re-education of young minds, teachers have absolutely no role and are not allowed to speak out. The Islamic State is not a tolerant organisation: They labelled all the curricula used before they came as blasphemous, introducing all sorts of punishments - from fines to death - to “any teacher who reverted to teaching the previous curriculum”. Teachers are also forced to attend religious sessions where they must accept the new curricula.  

Smuggling children out of IS-controlled areas has now become impossible due to the heavy control that the organisation imposes. The only option to save children's minds is not to send them to school.

And when not educating children is the best available option available for them, the dimension of the problem becomes even clearer. 


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