DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY —
Educators in Turkey are at the center of a crackdown, with more than 12,000 teachers suspended for alleged links to the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. A third of them work in Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish area.
At the local office of the educators' union, Egitim-Sen, a lawyer, gave advice to teachers recently suspended or charged on suspicion of supporting terrorism. Over a quarter of Diyarbakir’s 17,000 teachers have been affected by the crackdown. One teacher explained the intimidating tactics employed.
"At a very early hour in the morning police came banging on my door," he said. "They violently entered and told me that there is an order for my 'detention.' You go through a big worry and fear at that time, but you also know that you have not done anything wrong. Yet you know you still can get such a harsh treatment."
The teachers are accused of supporting terrorism because they participated in a strike last year calling for peace and an end to fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK. But co-head of the Diyarbakir branch of the educators' union, Saliha Zorlu, said she believes there is a wider agenda behind the crackdown.
"We are very worried," she said. "Egitim-Sen is the guarantee of secularism both in the field of education and in society in general. If there is no active opposition by Egitim-Sen, I believe the education system will be pushed away from secularism and transformed into a religious system under the hegemony of religion."
"We are already seeing the signs of this today," Zorlu added. "During the attack on us, we saw that imams were appointed to state-run dormitories."
Kurds in Turkey traditionally are religious conservatives. Religious groups in the region backing the government have recently stepped up their activities, advocating for the region's return to its Islamic roots as a counter to the pro-secular, Marxist-rooted, PKK, the Kurdistan workers' Party. Like the rest of the country, there has been an expansion of religious schooling in the Kurdish region. But the government insists its suspension of teachers is only about fighting terrorism.
The head of the ruling AKP party in Diyarbakir, Muhammed Akar, promised the innocent will be protected.
"In the upcoming days, those who made propaganda for the terror organization, who boycotted schools and who encouraged students to join the terrorists, will be separated from the innocent teachers," said Akar. "I can say that a significant percentage will be reinstated to their duties, and the others, those who are guilty, will be charged."
The arrests and suspensions of teachers are continuing to provoke anger and protests; many parents complain that their children are without teachers. Idris Baluken, a parliamentary group leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP Party, warned the suspensions are adding more tension to the region.
"The position of the Kurdish teachers is like cartilage between two bones," he said. "Yes, when you go to school you can't have education in Kurdish, but still, Kurdish-speaking teachers can help with the problems faced by children who do not speak Turkish."
"By taking out this cartilage," Baluken said, "President Erdogan is causing friction, making two bones rub against each other."
The conflict-strewn region appears to have a new front line - education, with children and teachers destined to become caught in the crossfire.