This one goes on the STORIES page, the SYRIA page, and the PHIL SANDS page.
The main photo for the Stories page should be: 12 - Islamic Students_Kuftaro.JPG
The one-line description is:
Private Islamic schools in Syria, once largely unregulated, are being brought under tight control after a former student took part
in a suicide bombing in Damascus that left 17 people dead.
Title: Islamic schools in Syria
The suicide bomber was driving along the airport road in Damascus, not far from a main security services office, when his car
exploded, ripping apart the calm of a fine weekend morning and killing 17 people.
It was not the first bombing to happen in Syria, which is no stranger to acts of political violence. The attack of 27 September
2008 was, however, the deadliest in decades and something new because the victims were overwhelmingly civilian. Syria had
finally been hit by the kind of Islamic militancy that had already ravaged Iraq and Lebanon.
In the course of their subsequent investigation, Syria's security agencies found at least one member of the cell behind the blast
had, by his own confession, spent two years as a student at an Islamic school in Damascus, the Fatah Institute. In a
controversially televised confession, shown to a transfixed nation weeks after the bombing, the accused man described the Fatah
Institute as a magnet for Islamic extremists, saying it attracted Arab and foreign students with "hard-line" ideologies.
Further underlining concerns about the city's Islamic institutes, in March 2009 Syrian secret police arrested two British citizens in
Damascus, both suspected of involvement with an organisation supporting al Qaeda in Iraq. Maryam Kallis, 36 years-old, from
west London, was a former student of the Ahmed Kuftaro Institute, better known as Abu Noor (or Abu Nour), another of Syria's
major private Islamic schools. Yasser Ahmed, from Surrey, was in his second year of a degree course at Abu Noor when he was
Both prisoners deny any wrongdoing. The British authorities formally requested they be released or charged, something that had
still not happened months after their detention. According to newspaper reports, the British secret services may have colluded in
By the time of their detention, the Syrian authorities had already carried out a full-scale inquiry into the privately run Islamic
institutes and had been sufficiently alarmed by what they found to bring about prompt and significant reforms, something unusual
for a government that customarily moves with glacial slowness.
The problem discovered by the Syrian investigators was simple: no one really knew what was going on in the institutes, no one
was properly monitoring their activities.
Damascus, July 2009
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01- Al Fath institute exterior 1_Damascus.JPG
The Fatah Institute, Damascus
The Fatah institute, separated from the Old City of Damascus' famous East Gate by a congested main road, and the place where
Abdul Baqi Hussein, one of the men accused of masterminding a suicide bomb attack in Damascus, claimed to have his extremist
02 - Classes at Al Fath institute 3_Damascus.JPG
Students attend an evening class at the Fatah Institute
In his televised confession, Abdul Baqi Hussein described the Fatah Institute as a magnet for Islamic extremists, saying it
attracted Arab and foreign students with "hard-line" ideologies. It was in the school's mosque and teaching rooms that his own
militancy had been incubated, he said, and the place where he had met like-minded colleagues.
03 - Dr Hussam Eddin Fafor Vice President al Fath Islamic Institute 9.JPG
Dr Hussam Eddin Fafor, Vice President al Fath Islamic Institute
Allegations of encouraging militant Islam were firmly rejected by Hussam Eddin Farfor, vice president of the Fatah Institute. The
school had long taught a modern and moderate curriculum, including Western philosophy and languages, he said, placing a heavy
emphasis on tolerance.
He described Abdul Baqi Hussein, the alleged bomb cell member, as an anomaly who had not learned violence there. "We have a
good history, one man cannot deform us", Mr Farfor said. "In the days of the Prophet Mohammad there were liars and hypocrites,
do we blame Mohammad for that? This man does not represent our academy, we have good professors and students who become
key figures in society, why does any one want to delete our history?"
04- picture on wall_IMG_1532.JPG
Mohammad Salih Farfor, founder of the Fatah Institute
The Fatah institute was established in 1965 by Mohammad Salih Farfor, the current vice-president's father, and initially had 200
students. By the end of 2008 it had 5,500 students, drawn from across the world, including Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia,
although a majority are Syrians from conservative families.
05 - Classes at Al Fath institute 10_Damascus.JPG
A student in class at the Fatah institute
Religious schooling in Syria had expanded rapidly since 2005, when there were 30 state-run religious education institutes with a
total of 7,000 students. According to official figures by the end of 2008 that number had risen to 127 Islamic academies with
approximately 21,000 students.Of those 32 were private schools in Damascus that, although opened with government permission,
had been largely self-regulated.
Syria's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy had been unable to keep pace with the sector's growth, and the authorities were
content to turn a blind eye to the institutes growing power. Laws governing religious schools were still based on a decree issued
in the late 1950s, when Syria and Egypt were joined as the United Arab Republic led by Gamal Abdul Nasser.
06- Dr Hussam Eddin Fafor Vice President al Fath Islamic Institute 3 .JPG
A student pays his respects to Hussam Eddin Fafor, vice president of the Fatah Institute
While the massive expansion of Islamic schooling has alarmed secular-minded Syrians, it was something the country should take
comfort from according to Mr Farfor. The alternative - shutting the Islamic schools down - would only serve to exacerbate
problems of extremism, he said, driving young Muslim scholars out of view and out of reach. "Let’s teach the youth in the light,
not let them go underground where they will get a fanatical or extremist interpretation of Islam.".
07 - Classes at Al Fath institute 9_Damascus.JPG
A teacher at the Fatah Institute
"There were so many questions and not many answers," said a government official involved in the post-bomb inquiry into the
Islamic schools, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were 1,000 private teachers [at the Islamic institutes], all paid much
more than normal teachers, and they were getting their salaries from private sources, and we don't evaluate them.
"There are about 500 foreign students who have visas without thorough checks of their backgrounds."
08- Abu noor in city scape_IMG_0025.JPG
The Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro Institute (twin green minarets, top left) in the Ruken Ed Deen neighbourhood of Damascus)
Abu Noor, officially known as the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Institute, is the largest, most illustrious Islamic school in Syria, with as
many at 8,000 students enrolled at any one time, some 300 of whom are non-Arabs, from Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and the
former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, Australia and the European Union.
The institute has a reputation for being a home to moderate Islam, something called into question during the early years of the
US-led occupation of Iraq, when Abu Noor’s founding director and Syria's then Senior Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad
Kuftaro, issued a fatwa endorsing suicide attacks against American forces. Since then it has largely regained its moderate
credentials and is seen as close to Syria’s secular-minded authorities.
Two British citizens arrested in Damascus in the spring of 2009 on accusations of helping finance al Qaeda are associated with
the institute, however. Maryam Kallis, a 36 year-old from west London, was a former pupil. Yasser Ahmed, from Surrey, was in
his second year of a degree course at Abu Noor when he was detained.
09- Islamic Students 2_Kuftaro.JPG
Baccalaureate students in an Arabic literature class at Abu Noor
One of the major concerns highlighted by the post-bomb inquiry was that the Islamic institutes were teaching from an
unregulated curriculum. As a result, some of the schools were espousing nakedly sectarian agendas, disparaging either Sunni or
Shiite Muslims. A member of a government religious schools review committee, established in the wake of the bombing, said
sectarian intolerance was being taught openly in classrooms.
"They did not have to have their books approved, or their curriculum," he said, also on condition of anonymity. "In some Sunni
schools they were using books that said it was against God for Muslims to visit the tombs and holy shrines, which are Shiite
cultural practices. And some of the Hawza [Shiite religious schools] taught negatively about the caliphs who followed the
Prophet, a criticism aimed at Sunnis."
Any emphasis of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites is a volatile subject, particularly following the sectarian bloodletting
in Iraq between 2005 and 2007, and given the perpetually simmering sectarian torment in Lebanon. Syria, with a mix of Sunni
and Shiite Muslims, a sizeable Christian community and various other minorities, has been keen to avoid igniting such fires on
10- - Abu Noor_IMG_2368.JPG
The classrooms and admin offices of Abu Noor (right)
Financing of the private Islamic schools was also lost in a fog. The Fatah institute had an annual budget of US$3.3 million in
2008, and of that the authorities had only been able to accurately trace a fraction of it back to its sources. The rest came from
Abu Noor's annual financing is approximately US$4.8 million, much sourced from a registered Islamic charitable foundation, al
Ansar, which has declared annual finances of $2.8 million. The remaining funding, US $2 million, came from private donors
whose identities were unknown to the Syrian authorities.
These funding arrangements opened the possibility that money was flowing in from ultra conservative Islamic groups; the
Syrians feared wealthy Saudi radicals who may have wanted to stir up militancy against the regime of Bashar al Assad, which has
often had an antagonistic relationship with Riyadh. Such tensions further fuelled because Syria's ruling elite are Alawites, a sub-
sect of Shia Islam considered heretical by fundamentalist Sunnis. Damascus' close relationship with Shiite Iran and Hizbollah, the
Lebanese resistance movement, has also angered Arab regimes and Sunni hard-liners, all fearful that Shiism is spreading in the
11- Mohammad Bukheed 10_director religious education_ministry of Islamic trust.JPG
Mohammad Bukheet, director of the education department at the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs
Rather than close the schools, tight new regulations were devised bringing all private Islamic institutes under the direct control of
the Ministry of Religious Affairs. All teachers were to have their private salaries stopped and were instead added to government
payrolls, in effect nationalising staff.
“Each school will get its donations and money through a committee headed by one of our employees,” said Mohammad Bukheet,
director of the education department at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. “We want to know where all monies are coming from
and where and when they are being spent.”
Mr Bukheet, placed in charge of day-to-day oversight for the religious schools as of November 2008, made it clear that private
institutes would have far less freedom from now on. “We will be the decision makers," he said. "We can now hire and fire any
teacher and we will pay their salaries.”
A unified, government-approved curriculum was established, in consultation with the institutes' heads, removing all books that
spread sectarian discord. Texts disparaging ether Sunnis or Shiites were prohibited from classes.
12- Islamic Students_Kuftaro.JPG
Baccalaureate students in an Arabic literature class at Abu Noor
New financial regulations were also introduced. Since the end of 2008 it has been a requirement that comprehensive, detailed
accounts be submitted to a government finances committee for audit. Under this system, donations from charities will no longer
pass directly into the hands of the institutions, instead needing prior approval from government observers.
Another key change still due to be implemented concerns foreign students. Once able to register for study at any school prepared
to accommodate them, new controls mean all overseas students will be registered at a single centre, the Badr al Deen al Hasseni
school in Damascus' Old City. Although ostensibly a private institute it will be controlled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs,
which will also be responsible for obtaining entry visas and screening students, in an effort to more easily identify any Islamic
extremists. The days of the Abu Noor institute attracting hundreds of foreign students have effectively been declared over.
13 - Prayers at Al Fath institute 5_Damascus.JPG
Evening prayers at the Fatah Institute
The religious schools have had little option but to embrace the changes. In November 2008 leaders of all the major private
Islamic institutes were invited to meet with President Assad to talk about the new regulations. According to one institute official,
the Syrian leader made it clear the schools were not under threat but that they had to be brought under a coherent legal
framework. President Assad also reportedly said the raft of new controls would be tested for a year and then reviewed.
"The political leadership wants to lead by consensus on this," said the official. "It doesn't want a crackdown and the measures it
has introduced are moderate, they respect our rights."
He also said that some senior staff at leading Islamic institute had been worried about their students - especially a small minority
of foreign ones - falling under the influence of extremists.
"The Syrian students are not so much of a worry," he said. "And most of the foreign students live on campus so we know what is
happening with them. But one third of students live off campus and they are much harder to monitor. We don't know where they
go, who they meet, what ideas they are getting. We'd rather they all lived inside the academy."
14 - Dr Salah Deen Kuftaro-3.JPG
Salah al Deen Kuftaro, director of Abu Noor, sits between portraits of Syrian President Bashar al Assad (left) and his father,
Syria's former Grand Mufti, Ahmad Kuftaro
At the Abu Noor institute, Salah al Deen Kuftaro, the school director, said he supported the new rules on Islamic institutes. “We
are happy with the new measures," he explained. "We work in a transparent way so we are not angry. I don't see these things as
negative points. For example, with a unified curriculum approved by the government, it means our qualifications will be
officially recognised. In the past we had graduates with certificates that were not accepted for government jobs."
15 - Abu Noor_IMG_2383.JPG
Abu Noor, main building.
Mr Kuftaro, the director of Abu Noor, also said the decision not to simply shut down private Islamic schools had been sensible.
"We have to accept there has been a rising in Islamic sentiments in the region, we have to recognise that phenomena not try to
"To have our young people studying in our schools is better than them going to other countries where they may learn strange
ideas or end up with teachers who tell them the real Islam is violent. We don't need people going abroad to return with radical
and wrong ideas. The best solution is to have them studying in the open here in Syria."