Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Hizbollah Mahdi schools mix maths with doctrine

Thanassis Cambanis in Beirut
Lebanese girls at a Mahdi school ceremony in Beirut©Getty
Attention to detail: Lebanese girls at a Mahdi school ceremony in Beirut
Minds are just as important as missiles to Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group. It has invested heavily in both since its founding in 1982.
At a recent celebration of Hizbollah’s private educational system – the Mahdi schools – Mohammad Raad, a senior party official, announced that the group had acquired missiles that could reach Eilat, the city at the southernmost point of Israel.
The fact that he chose to make the announcement at an education function was a fitting gesture to the Mahdi schools, established two decades ago by the Islamic Institution for Education, Hizbollah’s pedagogical branch.
Mahdi schools are expected to turn out competitive, well-trained students who are also loyal to Hizbollah’s resistance ideology and can staff the organisation’s many institutions.

“Our strategy is to take care of the human cadre,” Mustafa al-Qasir, the head of the system, said at the event.
Hizbollah has become the single most powerful political organisation in Lebanon, in part because of its extensive network of schools, hospitals and other social services as well as its powerful militia.
Mahdi schools are a cornerstone of Hizbollah’s “Society of Resistance”. They feature a standard modern technology-heavy curriculum, and students consistently score top marks on the brevet – the national high school exam.
They dispense a dose of Hizbollah doctrine, with religion and history classes from the party’s perspective. In every school hang portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader.
The schools are named after the Imam Mahdi – or the occulted imam – whose return, according to some Shia Muslims, will signal the end of history.
The first schools opened in 1993 in impoverished towns in southern Lebanon, only miles from the front line of the war between Hizbollah and the Israeli military.
There are now 14 Mahdi schools in Hizbollah strongholds, including the Bekaa valley in the south of Lebanon and Dahieh, the southern suburb of Beirut that is effectively Hizbollah’s capital. There is also a branch in the Iranian holy city of Qom to serve Lebanese students studying in the seminaries there.
The Al Mahdi Shahid – or Martyr – school on Beirut’s airport road has a swimming pool and computer lab, resources intended to make the school attractive against more established and wealthier private institutions.
The newer schools advertise their sports programmes, extracurricular activities and even their underground car parks. Tuition and fees run close to $1,000 a year, but Hizbollah provides scholarships to supporters and needy families. Tuition receipts do not cover operating costs, according to school officials. The schools rely on fundraising from private donors as well as subsidies from Hizbollah and the Iranian government.
State services were ravaged during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, and today many people avoid the state education system. According to a UN report, 70 per cent of Lebanese students attend private schools.
That proportion is higher for primary students. The state school system is considered to be of such low quality that families often gamble on for-profit private schools, especially in underserved rural areas.
In Beirut, where high-quality schools compete for pupils, families tend to choose the best school they can afford rather than one that reflects their sect, says Maha Shuayb, a fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies in Beirut.
In rural areas, villages and schools are more homogenous. The Mahdi schools are unique in their affiliation with a single political movement.
“Their mission statement talks about ‘education and indoctrination’. It’s a bit worrying,” Ms Shuayb says, pointing out that, in Arabic, “indoctrination” is the same word as “to fill up a bottle”.
There is no state monitoring of private schools, and no uniform curriculum requirements. Some private schools have sterling reputations for teaching critical thinking, others are considered low-quality cash cows.
Mahdi graduates tend to hold their own against other students when they enter Lebanese universities, but Ms Shuayb says it is hard to judge how well the schools teach foreign languages and critical thinking, because Mahdi schools are, notoriously, closed to outsiders and allow no external assessment.
Other sect-based schools, such as Shia Mabarrat and Mustafa schools, take part in national standards-building exercises and regularly invite independent researchers such as Ms Shuayb to assess their teaching methods.
In contrast, the Mahdi schools consistently deny requests for access from researchers and journalists, and their teachers and administrators are rarely seen at Lebanese educational conferences, Ms Shuayb says.
One Mahdi teacher explains, almost apologetically, why it is unlikely a western reporter would be allowed to visit. “These schools are for Hizbollah,” the teacher says, with a shrug.

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