Why the PKK burns Turkish schools

Why the PKK burns Turkish schools

The outlawed and illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group by most international definitions, has just launched a new crusade: They are burning public schools. In the past week, their militants set various school buildings, not only in the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast but also in the middle of Istanbul, on fire. Luckily, no student or teacher has been harmed so far because the attacks came at night. But this seems to be a new trajectory for the PKK that can hurt or destroy innocent lives.

The reasoning behind this new madness is none other than Kurdish ethnic nationalism. The PKK and its supporters believe that Turkey’s public schools act as an agent of “cultural genocide,” by educating Kurdish kids in a language other than their own mother tongue. The fact that the Turkish government recently included elective Kurdish classes in public schools has not toned down their zeal. Rather, they want “education in Kurdish,” in which the whole curriculum of public schools, from math to history, is taught in the Kurdish language.

In return, I fully condemn the PKK and its supporters for two separate reasons. The first and most obvious reason is violence. One can have all the negative ideas they want about an educational system, but none of these can justify attacks and arsons. In fact, it is not only pro-PKK Kurds that are unhappy about the Turkish education system. Conservative Muslims, for example, often complain that education is too secularist and Kemalist. But they don’t burn down schools, rather they raise democratic demands for reform.

In this sense, the PKK is hardly any different than the Taliban, who have bombed modern schools in Afghanistan (for making kids “infidels”), and who recently shot Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old young hero who has been campaigning for girls’ education rights. Another parallel is the Boko Haram in Nigeria, the violent Salafi group that attacks every “non-Islamic” institution, including modern schools.

It is a shame, then, that some “progressive” Turks who would righty condemn the Taliban and the Boko Haram sympathize with the PKK. They seem to “understand” the PKK’s attacks on Turkish schools, where they think Kurdish kids are subject to “cultural violence.”

This brings me to my second reason to oppose the PKK and its sympathizers: Their depiction of public education in Turkish as an attack on the Kurdish identity.

In fact, I do admit that the Kurdish identity has been attacked by the Turkish state for decades. Kurds were shamelessly called “mountain Turks” and their language was tyrannically banned. I have always argued against this enforced assimilation, and instead asked for integration.

But if Turks and Kurds will be integrated (rather than divided, or the latter assimilated), it is imperative that they understand each other. And that can only be possible when Kurds keep on speaking Turkey’s official and common language, which is used by all other non-Turkish ethnicities as well, such as Arabs, Bosnians, Circassians, Armenians, etc. All such groups are welcome to sustain and develop their own ethnic identities, but it is the state’s legitimate interest to keep public education in the country’s main language, as English is in the United States.

Yet still, if Kurdish nationalists are passionate to have schools that educate only in Kurdish, let them open them as private schools — a right that religious communities who disfavor secular education should also have. It will then be the best judge — the market — which will show us which language Kurdish parents really prefer for their kids’ education.