The struggle for Syria’s soul – 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. Much like the 90% or more of Syria’s students, my education in Damascus resembled a military camp with Soviet-style buildings. Indeed, we were prisoners inside our classrooms. But our prison guards had irreconcilable agendas that united them 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 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 controlled and 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.
Systematic dehumanization and brainwashing under the Assad regime begins at an early age. Ours 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 into service of the Baath Vanguards Organization (Talae’a al-Baath), founded by Hafez al-Assad in 1974. Whether a child is enrolled in a public or one of the few remaining semi-private schools catering to the elite, he or she is subject to Baath indoctrination. “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” is the Baath Party motto that we needed to memorize. We had to write it down on our notebooks and on chalkboards, repeating it at the beginning and end of each school day. “Unity” referred to pan-Arabism, while “Liberty” and “Socialism” was an expression of hatred toward the imperialist and capitalist West.
In middle school, a special book-series dedicated to Baath ideology became part of our instruction. The series was designed around a mythical version of Syria’s modern history, where the role of the Baath Party was central to the country’s rise. We studied Hafez al-Assad’s life in detail, including his Alawite background, childhood, and teenage years, as well as how he “saved” Syria by becoming its president. Our military studies also began at this stage. The core of our education was discipline, which meant breaking down our sense of individual worth.
But breaking and brainwashing us was also the concern of another set of teachers at this stage, namely our religious instructors. For all his bravado about secularism and all his problems with Islamists, Hafez al-Assad never dared to completely oppose them. Instead, he gave a free hand in social and educational affairs to the most unenlightened representatives of Sunni Islam. So long as they shied away from politics and preached obedience to the ruler, traditionalist preachers could do no wrong. But both our military and religious studies teachers believed in the holiness of their teachings and the insignificance of our humanity as their pupils.
I never really believed in Assad’s greatness. I came from a 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, and was critical of both the Baathists and the Muslim Brotherhood. He died under torture in 1982, the same year of the Hama Massacre. My grandmother would not learn of his fate for decades. I grew up watching her waiting for him to come back. He never did.
Being 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, though I was clearly liberal in my lifestyle. This in turn did not endear me to my religious studies instructors who treated me like a traitor to my heritage and my grandfather’s memory. Both the nature of our educational system and my family background conspired to make my experiences in school suffocating. Like for so many girls at the time, it was the walls of our school’s bathroom stalls that offered me the only opportunity to express myself. That was the only space where you do not see the Assads’ photos hung on walls, the father and sons. We used to sneak in our markers to draw our rebellious graffiti, and I would take out all my frustration against my teachers there, especially my Baathist and Islamist indoctrinators.
But because I came from a Sunni background and 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, though I always found ways to evade her. She could have forced my hand by threatening me with expulsion, but for some reason she never did.
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. When I would talk politics with my only trustworthy classmate, we spoke in riddles: The Mukhabarat were all around us, and 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 impossible.
Years later, I fear that Assad’s dictatorial Baathist rule is slowly giving way not to democratic governance, as we had hoped, but to Islamist rule, as we always feared. In many ways, Islamists were also an Assad creation: The Assads like to play a game of divide and conquer, creating extremists in all camps and using them to scare each other while projecting themselves as the secular peacemakers. Now, the arrangement is clearly backfiring, and the ultimate losers are the Syrian people. The Assads might still control a whole swath of territory and hold some power, but Islamist groups have taken control of other parts, and Kurdish areas seem poised to declare autonomy. 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 that they cannot be relied upon, while the enemies of freedom have a far better working relationship and approach the task at hand with a greater sense of urgency.
The fight to make Syria a country for all Syrians will be herculean.
Oula Abdulhamid is the Executive Director of SANAD Syria, an initiative of the Tharwa Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting the Syrian Revolution. Follow her on Twitter at @OulaAbdulhamid.
date : 10/10/2013