Chemistry and Philosophy Banned by ISIS


The combination of religious fervor and socio-political power often has devastating impacts on education. This is currently happening in northern Syria, where radical Islamic schools are banning the teaching of science and philosophy. This news comes to us via Al Arabiya News:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has established an “Islamic curriculum” for students living in the Syrian northern city of Raqqa and banned the study of philosophy and chemistry, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Friday.

ISIS, as most people are now aware, is a highly influential jihadist group based in the Middle East and is widely regarded by several countries in the world as a terrorist organization. “In its self-proclaimed status as a caliphate,” states Wikipedia, “it claims religious authority over all Muslims across the world and aspires to bring much of the Muslim-inhabited regions of the world under its political control.” ISIS currently has footholds in Syria and Iraq, and several sources inform us that they are actively seeking to expand their region.

Part and parcel of the widespread political control sought by ISIS is the reeducation of all people who fall under their control. The Al Arabiya story continues,

The militants called on teachers and school directors to “prepare an Islamic education system in the schools of Raqqa,” which would be reviewed by a board of education appointed by ISIS.

The decision to remove chemistry and philosophy from the curriculums comes as ISIS militants said “they do not fit in with the laws of god,” the London-based monitor group [SOHR] said.

The desire of ISIS to ban the teaching of philosophy makes plenty of sense. For a great many people, exposure to philosophy has often been responsible for their rejection of religious faith. My own rejection of the faith I was brought up with and my subsequent embrace of freethought was in large part a result of my studies in philosophy. The realization that one need not be afraid to think critically about the ideas and concepts upon which religion traditionally claims an intellectual monopoly (morality, metaphysics, epistemology, etc.) is a valuable benefit conferred by philosophy. For this reason, it’s understandable that ISIS would have a vested interest in suppressing philosophy in the educational systems they control.

But I wonder why ISIS is specifically placing chemistry in their crosshairs. It strikes me as a random discipline to ban, especially when juxtaposed with philosophy. Do they somehow believe acids, bases, and the periodic table of elements to be blasphemous? Perhaps the jihadist group views chemistry and/or philosophy in an arbitrarily symbolic way, as representative of certain aspects of Western-based education that they find offensive. But whatever the reason, ISIS is probably not going to stop at chemistry in their censorship campaigns against science. They will likely go on to target other sciences as well in the near future.

The irony of ISIS banning chemistry education is hard to miss. Islamic militants have often relied on the products of chemistry to create weapons for their destructive vendetta campaigns. Even rudimentary substances like gunpowder require some basic knowledge of chemistry to produce. But perhaps the reason they don’t want children learning about chemistry has to do with the control they want to wield over information. Practical sciences will doubtless still remain in the hands of a chosen few within ISIS ranks. Perhaps they want jihadist soldiers and suicide bombers to believe that the physical processes that make things react and explode are the result of holy magic.

The fear of science is one thing all radical religions have in common, no matter what deity they worship. If fundamentalist Christians here in America were able to wield complete control over education, their censorship campaigns against certain subjects would not look much different than those headed by ISIS in northern Syria. If they were in charge, fundamentalist Christians who look forward to a theocracy would certainly ban the teaching of evolution, the big bang model of cosmology, geology, and any number of other subjects that they view as a threat to their religious world-picture.

Many attempts have been made to reform education in Middle Eastern countries, and the powerful presence of ISIS in many parts of Syria and the northwestern border of Iraq will constitute a major obstacle to progress for reform workers. As ISIS continues to undermine stability in those regions and threaten to drag its people back into substandard educational conditions, we are forcefully reminded once again of the truth of Christopher Hitchens’ statement that “religion poisons everything.”

This is not to say that all Muslims are poisoning everything. The majority of Muslims across the world are pushing back hard against ISIS, and we may end up having them to thank if ISIS is stopped in its tracks and prevented from spreading any further than they already have. For example, authorities in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, have issued strong condemnations of ISIS. The biggest threat comes from that small minority of Muslims who take their religion’s teachings more seriously than non-extremists.

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