Curriculum Changes to Mold the Jihadis of Tomorrow

Rawdat al-Shuhada (Houthi graveyard), graves with photos for Houthi fighters - Dhamar governorate, 10 November 2021 // Sana’a Center Photo

أقرا هذا باللغة العربية

By Manal Ghanem*

Since its takeover of Sana’a in 2014, the armed Houthi movement has cemented its hold over northern Yemen. An important part of this has been its extensive focus on education, systematically targeting the youth with Houthi ideology. This has meant moving from a civic education to one with a more religious point of view – a move similar to that made after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers changed school curriculums in Iran as a way of shaping the next generation.

In Yemen, courage is easily linked to martyrdom. Stories of brave men defending their country have been the backbone of folktales in the culture for centuries. The concept can be easily manipulated to depict bravery as an effort to defend the homeland against an enemy. Today, after seven years of conflict, a revised integration of this concept is seeping into the minds of children. The stories are no longer of heroes in farfetched scenarios; they are now real examples of their fathers, brothers and cousins. The Houthi movement is molding future generations of fighters.   

Where it all Began

Since coming to power, the Houthi authorities have implemented a sectarian agenda to ensure the loyalty of children in the future and persuade adults to fight on the frontlines today.[1] In education, after more than seven years of rule, the changes that have been made to the school curricula and in the education system more broadly are easy to see. Examples include what might appear to be small changes in how a Quranic verse is interpreted, but these changes completely alter one’s understanding of the text. For instance, verses that glorify jihad have been highlighted, while other verses have been reinterpreted to align with the group’s identity. Hashemites are portrayed as superior, while whole chapters that once illustrated the diverse and rich history of Yemen have been replaced with chapters that focus on Zaidi, Shia and Houthi leaders. Stories about historical Arab heroes – such as Omar ibn Abdul Aziz, Omar al-Mukhtar, and Youssef al-Azma  , for example – have been replaced by those about Saleh al-Sammad, the former Houthi president, who was killed in April 2018.[2]

Changes started in Sa’dah, where the group integrated their literature through distributing writings by the group’s founder, Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi.[3] The teachings of Al-Houthi became the main curriculum in the governorate in 2010. The group’s educational approach stems from their conviction that the current educational system corrupts the youth.[4] As a means to fight back, the Believing Youth Movement came together in the early 1990s, establishing religious centers to teach Islamic sciences according to Zaidi views, with the Houthi movement subsequently arising from within these efforts.[5] Since 2010, Al-Sarkhah, the official Houthi slogan, has been enforced in all schools in the governorate, replacing the national anthem in many cases.[6]

In 2016, two years after the Houthis took control of Sana’a, the group appointed Yahya Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, the brother of current Houthi movement leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, as the Minister of Education. The move sparked fears in Sana’a and other governorates under the group’s control about the possibility of changing or modifying educational curricula.

Initially the changes were slight, but for the 2021/2022 school year, the Ministry of Education in Sana’a issued a modified curriculum in Islamic studies, the Holy Quran and social studies for primary school. These introduced new lessons and modified or deleted original lessons covering civic rights, the role of women and the history of influential figures that shaped the history of Yemen.

The Houthis have also instituted changes at technical, vocational and community colleges, all under the broad pretext of “protecting the faith”. As part of this process, the Houthis have monitored what professors teach in the classroom as well as the political views of those professors and teachers.[7] 

The Process of Change  

For the Houthi movement’s ideas and beliefs to be instilled among school students – and changes in the curricula to be realized smoothly – the group has been prepared to change and remove school principals from their jobs, replacing them with Houthi loyalists. According to Yahya al-Yinai, a spokesperson for the Yemen Teachers Syndicate – a group loyal to the internationally-recognized government – these tactics have now left the Houthis in control of 90 percent of the schools in the northern highlands.[8]  

To fund the printing and distribution of the new curricula, the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Sana’a has imposed fees on students at public schools as ‘community contributions’ (elementary students pay 500 Yemeni rials (YR) and secondary school students pay between YR1000-YR1500 monthly). It has also raised the fee for the renewal of private school licenses. It has also forced private schools to purchase the new curricula and donate copies to nearby public schools. The MOE’s Education Office in Sana’a also conducts random inspections of schools to ensure that the new curriculum is being used.[9] Schools found using the old curriculum face fines of up to YR400,000.[10]

The MOE frequently issues curricula to public and private schools via its WhatsApp and Telegram channels, mandating what should be taught. At the same time, Houthi loyalists, who have been installed as teachers, act as inspectors, reporting on how their colleagues conduct lessons.[11] Children of Houthi loyalists are also used as monitors.[12]

What Has Changed

Changes in primary school textbooks targeted four curricula: the Arabic language; Islamic education; Civics and History. Amendments to the Civics curriculum included lessons that glorify the Houthi movement’s history since they took control of Sana’a and the events that accompanied that period. For instance, these lessons frequently describe the Saudi-led Coalition as being supported by the “American-Zionist alliance,” and depict the Houthis as the protectors of Yemen.[13] 

Lessons about Mohammed Mahmoud al-Zubairi and Ali Abd al-Mughni, key figures in the 1962 revolution in North Yemen, have been replaced by ones talking about Imam Al-Qasim, Imam Al-Mansour and his son Yahya Hamid al-Deen – all Zaidi imams who ruled Yemen. September 21, 2014 – the date of the Houthi takeover of Sana’a – is described as a “revolution”.[14]

In the eighth grade (ages 13-14), the new curriculum omits everything related to the 1962 revolution, which established the Yemen Arab Republic. Gone also are lessons about the function of the state, the three executive authorities and the concept of tyranny. In their place are lessons about national identity, defending the homeland and the fight for independence. In the ninth grade (ages 14-15), all lessons about civic life, civil society and women’s participation are omitted.[15]

All students are mandated to take an active role in religious activities[16] and ‘patriotic’ events,[17] which highlight the Houthis’ role in defending the homeland and stress the internationally recognized government’s complicity in the deaths of Yemeni civilians. 

Summer Centers for Indoctrination

Changes in the school curricula to have an impact on students take time –  longer than the Houthi authorities wish to wait. To accelerate the process, the group has been reviving summer schools and centers and devoting more resources to them, strengthening their prevalence and acceptance. These centers have received significant attention from the group’s leader, Abdelmalek, and his brother, Yahya, the education minister.

As a result, the Houthi authorities have established almost 3,700 centers across 16 governorates. These centers are controlled by the Houthi leadership and the educational content taught to participants is designed by the Houthi authorities. Attendance is promoted in mosques by preachers and other influential figures, with participation bringing recognition to children and their families. Not surprisingly, the Houthis also do not allow any unaffiliated summer study centers to be established.[18]

In several instances, parents spoke of their children being influenced by their classmates during these summer schools to join the fighting. Many children have also run away from their homes to join active frontlines without their parents’ consent after being influenced by peers who have been trained at these summer centers.[19] 

In a 2021 joint report, SAM Rights and Liberties and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor stated that, “The Houthis use summer centers to recruit children by indoctrinating students with the group’s ideologies through sectarian lectures.”[20] According to the report, the number of children recruited by the group since 2014 was around 10,333,[21] while in 2017, a United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights press statement estimated the number of child soldiers fighting with the group at about 1,500 children.[22] By the end of 2018, the Associated Press reported around 18,000 recruited children.[23] In 2019, the minister of human rights in the internationally recognized government estimated the numbers to be around 30,000 children since 2014.[24]

Jihad Magazine for Kids

Many of the teachers interviewed said that society and the media play a larger role in shaping students’ awareness and culture than school does – a point the Houthi movement has been aiming to exploit.[25]

The Houthi authorities have created a monthly magazine, called Jihad, that targets children with fancy illustrations. It is authored by the Imam Al-Hadi Cultural Foundation, which is linked to the Houthi movement.[26] The magazine shames all enemies of the Houthis and describes such people as cowards and accomplices of the US. Jihad magazine can be found on a dedicated website and social media pages.[27]

According to the report of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), the magazine blunts some of its more strident material by providing useful scientific and neutral content such as drawing lessons and maths exercises.[28] The bulk of the magazine, however, focuses on the importance of jihad and portrays children fighting in battles, planning attacks and pleading with their families to allow them to go and fight against the ‘aggression’ threatening the country.

The magazine also displays violent content. All humans who stand against the Houthi movement are portrayed as monstrous and unethical, while those who seek peace are weak. The magazine includes graphic pictures of children killed in airstrikes, with captions declaring that the “enemy” will stop at nothing until all Yemenis are dead.[29]

The Houthi authorities are thus applying educational changes, leveraged by social propaganda, to influence Yemeni society and make the changes they want to see.  The ramifications of these changes will become apparent in future, as the social fabric of Yemeni society goes through tectonic shifts.

Both national and international institutions must work together to stop the flow of these ideas into schools and the daily lives of children. If nothing is done to limit the effect of this indoctrination, generations of Yemeni youth will be embarking on a future in which the highest aspiration for their lives will be martyrdom in battle, in which fame and success will be symbolized by having a poster of one’s face hung in the streets next to all the rest who died thinking the violence they committed was in God’s name. The world would see the creation of a breed of extremism that sprouts from the soil of an education in hate and poverty, destabilizing the region for generations to come.


Manal Ghanem is a researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies where her work focuses on cultural and technical research.

*The co-writer of this report was a participant with the Sana’a Center’s Yemen Peace Forum. Their name is being withheld for security reasons.


Endnotes

[1] “The Suffering of Yemeni Children Between the Inferno of War, Violations and Deprivation of Basic Services [AR],” Al-Quds al-Arabi, August 14, 2021, https://bit.ly/3hWYVaV

[2] “Changes in School Curricula in Houthi-Controlled Areas [AR],” Sidq Yemeni Platform,  June 2021, www.SidqYem.com

[3] Ahmed Mohammed Al-Daghshi, The Houthis and their Military, Political and Educational Future [AR], (Doha, Arab and International Relations Forum, 2013),  p. 149.

[4] Hamoud Abdullah Al-Ahnoumi, Education in the Thought System of Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi [AR], (Sana’a, Zaidi Islamic Council, 2017), p. 50

[5]  Ibid, p.18

[6]  Ibid. p. 177

[7] “Discussing the Requirements for Consolidating the Faith Identity in Technical Education Institutions,” Al-Thawrah Net, February 21, 2021,  http://althawrah.ye/archives/659279

[8] “Yemen’s Teachers’ Union Accuses Houthis of Indoctrinating Children,” The Arab Weekly, April 20, 2021, https://thearabweekly.com/yemens-teachers-union-accuses-houthis-indoctrinating-children

[9] Author’s confidential interviews with officials in public and private schools, September 19, 2021. All interviews with educational staff for this paper had to be confidential, for fear of reprisals against those interviewed.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Author’s confidential interview with a teacher in a private school, September 22, 2021. All interviews with educational staff for this paper had to be confidential, for fear of reprisals against those interviewed.

[13] “Changes in School Curricula in Houthi-Controlled Areas [AR],” Sidq Yemeni Platform,  June 2021, p.26, www.SidqYem.com

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Amanat Al-Asimah Schools Launch the Activities of the Prophet’s Birthday [AR],” Ansarollah.com, September 27, 2021, https://www.ansarollah.com/archives/464667

[17] “‘Ansar Allah’ Uses Education as a Sectarian Platform [AR],” Arij.net, unknown date,  https://arij.net/yemen-education/

[18] “Inauguration of Summer Centers in the Municipality of the Capital and the Governorates [AR],” Al-Masirah.net. June 22, 2021, https://www.almasirah.net.ye/post/41440/

[19] “Recruitment of children… a violation of childhood and a “booby-trap” for Yemen’s present and future [AR],” DW, July 2, 2021, https://bit.ly/3CZJ7MW

[20] “Childhood Militarism: Report Documenting Houthi Recruitment of Children in the Armed Conflict in Yemen [AR],” SAM Rights and Liberties and Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, February 2021, https://samrl.org/pdf/4554_5851609623282320014.pdf

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Press Briefing Notes on Thailand and Yemen,” OHCHR, February 28, 2017, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21244&LangID=E

[23] “Children as Young as 10 Kill and Die in Yemen’s War,” Associated Press, December 19, 2018, https://apnews.com/article/saudi-arabia-child-soldiers-yemen-ap-top-news-houthis-082c0b7b6253468e97da5ee0c3f43066

[24] Joyce Karam, “Houthis Recruited 30,000 Child Soldiers, Says Yemeni Minister,” The National, October 9, 2019, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/houthis-recruited-30-000-child-soldiers-says-yemeni-minister-1.921267

[25] Author’s confidential interviews with officials in public and private schools, September 19, 2021. All interviews with educational staff for this paper had to be confidential, for fear of reprisals against those interviewed.

[26] Islam Saif , “A Houthi Magazine Directed at the Children of Yemen Cultivates and Consolidates Sectarian Ideas [AR],”  Al-Arabiya, September 6, 2017, https://bit.ly/3kyakjs

[27] For example, Jihad mag, Twitter page, “Jihad Magazine for Children [AR],”

https://twitter.com/Jehad_mag?t=qLQs30EMdbXwY67ahEP9sA&s=09, Jihad mag, Telegram page, “Jihad Magazine for Children [AR],” https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://t.me/s/Jehad_mag%3Fbefore%3D130&ved=2ahUKEwj53-T9krvzAhUResAKHYEeAigQFnoECBsQAQ&usg=AOvVaw0fJiCXVzvBfN9jCBUdxbs9

[28] Itam Shalev, “Review of Houthi Educational Materials in Yemen 2015-19,” IMPACT-SE, March, 2021, https://www.impact-se.org/wp-content/uploads/Review-of-Houthi-Educational-Materials-in-Yemen_2015-19.pdf

[29] Ibid.