Female students conservatively dressed in a Mosul school.
He has a strange name and people obey him when he gives orders. They call him Dhul-Qarnayn and he has been appointed the head of the so-called Ministry of Education of the Islamic State. In October his ministry issued a new set of instructions for teachers working in areas under the control of the Islamic State group, the extremist militia that has taken over territories in Iraq and Syria recently and declared itself a state.
And recently Dhul-Qarnayn issued another set of instructions. Standing in the courtyard of official buildings in Mosul, the Islamic State fighter spoke to all of the employees that ad turned up that day. “I swear to God that I did not want this job,” he said. “I don’t like to work in offices. I came here to fight the infidels.”
With statements like these, it is perhaps no wonder that the fighter known as Dhul-Qarnayn has become somewhat notorious among the Islamic State, or IS, group’s leaders in Mosul. The name means “he who possesses two horns” and in the Quran he is an ancient ruler who fought injustice and protected his people against infidels. Some historians think that he may actually have been Alexander the Great but others dispute this. Dhul-Qarnayn was also considered to be a wise man who passed on a lot of his wisdom and educated his people about religion.
In Mosul, many locals are intrigued by this individual, not least because of his name. Those who have worked closely with him say his accent shows that he is clearly of Egyptian descent but they have seen that he carries a German passport. Nobody knows his real name but they know of many of his actions and decisions, which appear to contradict his apparent core mission, education.
At the aforementioned meeting in the courtyard Dhul-Qarnayn announced that the IS group would be taking IQD6 billion out of the education department’s coffers to buy weapons. When it became clear that the gathered employees were unhappy with this decision, Dhul-Qarnayn rebuked them sharply. “It is not important to build schools and universities,” he said. “It is far more important to defeat the enemies of Islam.”
This celebrity among the IS group leaders is also known for his shuttle diplomacy: it takes him from one school to another. He makes the visits to announce irrevocable decisions; there is no room for debate.
One of the local bodies to suffer under Dhul-Qarnayn’s reign is the University of Mosul, formerly one of the largest educational institutions in Iraq. It is one of Dhul-Qarnayn’s most important possessions and it is slowly being transformed into a facility for extremist education. The law, political science and fine arts schools have all been shut down and the Islamic studies course and other aspects of the curriculum have also changed radically. Additionally males and females must now attend the university separately – women go one day and men go the next.
“This man doesn’t act randomly,” says a professor from Mosul, who cannot be named for security reasons. “He plans his projects carefully and he’s been able to get some staff to cooperate with them and get them on side. He has a carrot-or-stick policy.”
As a result the Ministry of Education in Baghdad withheld the salaries of around 200 teaching staff because, it says, they have collaborated with the extremists.
Dhul-Qarnayn has already announced some fairly radical changes to the general school curriculum in Mosul and in other areas that the IS group control. Art, music, philosophy and social studies classes have been cancelled and geography, history and literature lessons as well as any teaching about Christianity are against the rules. Some parts of Islamic education classes were also cancelled. Basic subjects such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, Arabic and English will continue to be taught.
Additionally the IS group wanted the phrases - “Republic of Iraq” or “Republic of Syria” deleted from use and “faithless” songs and poems banned, as well as any of the latter that had connotations of patriotism for Iraq or Syria.
In science books, any reference to Darwinism or to natural evolution was to be deleted. This would be replaced by sentences that made it clear that God was the creator of everything. However students would be allowed to study chemistry and physics because these were laws used by God.
The IS group has also opened a new educational institute for religious teachings in central Mosul; there the preachers and imams loyal to the IS group receive religious education. Dhul-Qarnayn ordered all the other students and teachers expelled.
Many parents in Mosul are concerned about the new curriculum but are left feeling helpless. As one educator put it, “this curriculum will only create a generation of extremists and killers”.
Dhul-Qarnayn is also known for his staunch attitude toward the niqab – the traditional veil that covers almost the whole face, leaving only the eyes visible. He believes that even 10-year-old school girls should be wearing it and he has instructed that six-year-old girls must wear the hijab, the veil that covers the head and chest.
Dhul-Qarnayn hasn’t neglected the male students either. The outfit known around Mosul as the “Afghani costume” or the “Kandahar look” has been being produced in workshops in the city for some time now. It is called the Afghani costume because often fighters from the Afghan Taliban group wear clothes like this. Many of the fighters from the IS group wear the long shirt and baggy pants favoured by the Taliban too. And now smaller sizes are being produced so that the outfits can be sold to school children too.
Another of Dhul-Qarnayn’s initiatives involves attempts to recruit from among young men at secondary schools in Mosul. The IS group actually sent a delegation to a school to persuade the younger men to join the fight on their side. However locals say the delegation failed in their task; none of the young men showed any enthusiasm for joining the IS group.
Dhul-Qarnayn is also known for his jokes and for his willingness to laugh with staff, to show he is close to them. He speaks to them in his soft Egyptian accent and he also prays with them, demonstrating modesty and humility.
One of the teachers in Mosul, Wajih, was describing the new director of education to his family.
“He is a big guy and he has a big, thick beard,” Wajih told his wife. “He’s not even 30 years old and although he can be flexible with the employees, he can also be very ruthless and make others obey him.”
Wajih’s younger daughter was busy drawing a picture but she was also listening while he was speaking. Her picture ended up being of a monster with two horns carrying a sword. She then showed the picture to her mother. “Is this person my dad’s new boss?” she asked sweetly.