New PYD curricula in northern Syria reveal ideological, linguistic fault lines

AMMAN: New Kurdish-language primary school curricula introduced by the PYD-led Kurdish authorities in northern Syria last month are generating controversy for being too ideological and “prioritizing a single view over all others.”

That single view is the democratic confederalist ideology of the PYD, or the Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish political party founded in 2003 by Syrian Kurdish activists, of which Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey currently serving the 16th year of a life sentence for treason, is the ideological leader.

The PYD is the strongest political party in the Kurdish self-administration, which currently controls a large swathe of de facto autonomous Kurdish territories running west to east along the Turkish border in northern Syria, which as of Wednesday also includes the new canton of Tal Abyad.

With the start of the 2015-2016 school year in September, Kurdish is now replacing Arabic as the sole language of instruction for the first three years of primary education in Kurdish schools in the autonomous territories.

Accompanied by newly printed books and teachers fresh out of a three-month PYD training course, the curriculum is the first step in a plan for an eventual Kurdish- language educational system.

“Just like the Syrian government’s textbooks,” Kadar Ahmad, a Kobani-based Kurdish activist told Syria Direct, the texts used in the new curricula “prioritize a single view over all others, the difference being that these curricula adopt Ocalan’s thought rather than Baathist ideas.”

Ocalan’s philosophy revolves around democratic confederalism, or what he termed “a non-state political administration” in a 2012 publication.

It is a vision of a grassroots governing system that rejects the structure of a traditional nation state and is “flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus oriented.” Feminism and a socialist economic structure are key parts of what he calls a “democracy without a state.”

But the PYD is not ruling northeast Syria alone. Other parties within the Kurdish self-administration include the Kurdish National Council (KNC) coalition aligned with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, who are criticizing alleged bias in the books, which include subjects such as “Ocalan philosophy” and “the Democratic nation,” Kurdish-owned Bas News reported late last month.

Cheerful images of Ocalan, juxtaposed with the Rojava flag and speaking with a young child, fill some of the pages of textbooks used as part of the new curricula, in pictures given to Syria Direct. 

 Pages from the new primary school textbooks. Photos courtesy of Kadar Ahmad.

Opposition to the new curricula is not only partisan, however. Educators have also pointed to the content of the new texts as an attempt to embed a “totalitarian ideology” into school lessons by “sanctifying the leader and militarizing the schools,” Jian Zakaria, the secretary of the West Kurdistan Teachers’ Union said.

In an interview with the Kurdish Rihab news agency, Zakaria characterized the new curricula as “an educational disaster and a crime against future generations.”

Students and young people voice similar critiques. “Teaching in Kurdish is a fundamental part of the Kurdish movement,” the unaffiliated Students and Youth Union of Democratic West Kurdistan wrote in an announcement late last month, but the new curricula “consolidate PYD ideology at the expense of the rest, and sanctify a particular political thought and philosophy.”

Kurdish supporters of the new curricula describe them as the culmination of a decades-long struggle for the inclusion of the Kurdish language in public institutions after decades of restrictions and discrimination by multiple Syrian governments.

“The Kurdish dream of reading and learning in the mother tongue has become a reality,” Raman Yousef, a Kurdish activist based in Al-Hasakah and director of the Al-Hasakah is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign told Syria Direct.

“Naturally, there will be difficulties, but today the Kurdish language has been liberated from the prison of Arabic once and for all,” said Muhammad Nabou, a Kurdish media activist in Kobani.

Regime backlash

In response to the Kurdish self-administration’s new curricula, the Syrian regime has closed primary schools teaching it in at least three al-Hasakah towns since the beginning of the school year, Kadar Ahmad told Syria Direct last week, while schools teaching regime materials have remained open.

The closures make good on threats made by the Syrian government’s Ministry of Education in a decision issued late last month “to withdraw educational personnel completely” from elementary schools teaching the new curricula and stop their salaries, a source from the regime’s educational directorate in Qamishli told ARA News.

PYD officials doubled down on the merits of the new self-administration curricula in response to the threats.

“We will not allow the regime or anybody else to close the schools in Rojava,” Muhammad Saleh Abdo, president of the governing body’s education commission pledged during a tour of Qamishli schools last month.

Those opposing the curricula, Abdo said, “Will not be allowed to keep Kurdish students from their mother tongue.”

Calling the regime response “an expected move” to the change in the educational status quo of Kurdish-administered territories, Kobani-based activist Nabou says the self-administration plans to step in and pay any lost salaries in order to continue the project.

 Kurdish students and families protests the PYD curricula in Amouda last week. Photo courtesy of Yekiti Media.

Reported regime closures of schools teaching the new materials in the northern al-Hasakah town of Amouda sparked a demonstration by dozens of mostly Kurdish schoolchildren and their relatives last week, who also criticized the curricula for pro-PYD “ideological recruitment,” ARA News reported.

The Amouda residents also criticized the separation of Kurdish schoolchildren from their Arab peers and the loss of English and Arabic as part of the new program.

“We want to learn our Kurdish language, and we want to learn Arabic and English also,” a sign in the protest read, calling for a more inclusive educational program than the one offered by the PYD.

In Qamishli, 28 kilometers east of Amouda, administrators of a private Syriac Christian school sent Kurdish students home from class on Monday with a message asking their parents to “completely refrain from sending your children to the school.”

The school’s request came after the PYD-led self-administration asked multiple private Christian schools in Qamishli to teach Kurdish students the new materials, which they have refused, Evin Sheikhmous, an independent journalist in Qamishli told Syria Direct.

“Dozens” of Kurdish families had reportedly chosen to send their children to private schools at the beginning of the school year to avoid the PYD curricula, meaning that the decision could affect “approximately 500 [Kurdish] students” attending private schools in the city, Osama Ahmad, a Qamishli-based Kurdish activist told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

 In last week’s Amouda demonstration, a boy held up a sign with a simple request: “Return me to my school, far from your politics!”

 “Return me to my school, far from your politics.” Photo courtesy of Jian Omar.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Moutasem Jamal

Moutasem Jamal studied English literature. He moved to Jordan after losing his job because of violence in his area.