Education As a Conflict Promoter: The Nagorno-Karabakh Example
In conflict-affected countries, education can serve both as a conflict-promoter and facilitator of peace. It is more likely that education will be utilized as a conflict promoter in newly independent and undemocratic states. A newly independent state involved in a territorial or ethnic conflict expects and calculates different kinds of security threats by the opposite side. It holds the population in a perpetual state of war preparedness fueled by hatred and antagonism against the enemy. The use of education as a conflict promoter, therefore, becomes a vital policy component aimed at preserving national security.
The use of education as a conflict promoter is evident within the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Despite the ceasefire and ongoing peace negotiations, both Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been preparing their constituency for a renewed war rather than peace. Education, therefore, has been mainly used as a propaganda tool. History and other textbooks have been altered and used as brainwashing and influencing methods on the younger generation.
As it is with other territorial conflicts, within the Nagorno-Karabakh context, both conflict sides are always keen to prove by any means possible that these lands historically belong to them and that the opposite side arrived after them. This is reflected throughout the educational system, including history textbooks and classes. Each side tries to de-emphasize the opposite side’s roots and presence in the region as much as possible. Even if the name of the other side is mentioned in some sentences, it is written in such a way so that it does not draw special attention. Education based on these altered books leads to one-sided understanding and groundless preconceptions about the other. For instance, students begin to think that if the opposite side’s name (nation’s name) is not mentioned in history books until the 15th century, then that nation is not so ancient and they are not indigenous to those lands, and thus, do not deserve to be there. As there are no alternative sources, readers are not able to ponder over their accuracy.
Another tactic is to keep the painful memories alive. For instance, the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan added a page under the heading of “Bloody memory! Don’t forget! The territories had been occupied by Armenian aggressors” to the diary of pupils in which their daily marks have to be noted. There is also detailed information about the occupied lands during Nagorno-Karabakh war on that page. Surely, providing impressionable youth with this kind of propagandistic information pushes them to consider their historical neighbors as their definite and most vicious enemy in the world. Similar propaganda processes have been carried out in the Armenian society too. For instance, in Armenia, it is generally propagated to teens and youngsters that “Your number one enemies are Turks.” This kind of rhetoric is also reinforced by the leaders as well. For example, during the Armenian language and literature contest on 25th July 2011, Armenian president Serj Sarkisyan told a group of students: “We liberated part of our motherland –Artsak (Nagorno Karabakh) from the enemy in 1990s. Every generation has its own duty and liberating Agri mountain is your duty” (Mammadli and Allahyarova 2009, 14). By taking into account the audience and influential role and position of the author of these words, one can imagine the impact it would have on 10-12 years old pupils.
All examples mentioned above are a manipulation of education for particular purposes. Through manipulative “education” or rather ethnocentric or racist indoctrination, people are enslaved by their own irrational aggressive impulses, losing, in the process, their human autonomy that is based on their capacity to think. As a result, each of these nations has only one “enemy”. In Armenia, “enemy” and other insulting words are associated with “Turk” (Azerbaijani), whereas “Armenian” is equated with “enemy” or other insulting words in Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, youth from both societies not only avoid contact with each other, but also refrain from interacting with each other when they meet in neutral zones for the first time while participating in conferences and workshops.
I was confronted with this reality when I recently visited front line regions to get a first-hand look at how conflict-promoting education has impacted younger generations. I found a small school building in one of the villages situated along the front line, only 300-400 meters away from the point where skirmishes frequently take place. Talking to students of this school in an attempt to make any peaceful change in their minds is very difficult to do. I received different opinions expressed by the teens studying in that school. When asked whether he would like to go back to Kalbajar and live there together with Armenians, one of the students I interviewed – a 15-year old boy originally from Kalbajar and currently residing in Tartar – answered that he was, “afraid of Armenians, [because] they always killed our ancestors, babies, people savagely” (with anxiety and fear).[ii] He said that he came to this opinion from reading textbooks and other books, and also his teachers always talk about this at school.
Some of them regretfully emphasized that the conditions they had to live under were very difficult. Although they did not want to admit, it was clear that they were in favor of peace. Nevertheless, there were students with more war-prone attitudes. Almost every day, they hear gunshots or see someone injured or killed by a mine. Sometimes they see people shot dead or wounded by snipers. Teachers also do their part by reinforcing the grim reality by offering current and historical examples to foster the “enemy” image in their minds. As a result, these kind of undesirable tendencies impede creation of any positive peace-favoring thoughts in their minds.
In order to get a balanced understanding and a better sense of the role of education on the opposite side, I interviewed Armenians as well. It should be noted that these interviews took place via internet and with the help of my Armenian friends, since it was impossible for me to visit Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. I posed the same question to Armenians about the prospect of living together with Azerbaijanis. One interviewee told me that his secondary school teacher used to tell students that Azerbaijanis were worse than Turks. He said that he was wondering why Turks were so bad, and why Azerbaijanis were worse. “It was like some shameful obscenity, if teacher says you are ‘Turk’ or ‘Azeri’,” he noted.. According to him, all of their readings in history books were all the scary and inhuman things that the “enemy” had committed to their children and women. “But later I saw that every ‘enemy’ of every single country does bad things, because this is all about war you know, and I see that war is always bad, cruel”, he added. “I would do the same things with a Turk guy, and there are surely so many people, youth who is/are thinking like this”. Certainly, there are lots of people who do not want to be an enemy to anyone. “But it is getting harder and harder, because more of our children think “‘they are’ evil and ‘they’ should die!”
Though there are general opinions and ideas about the conflict in the society, results differ, because these dialogues and interviews were conducted among different age groups from various regions of Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the observation, three age groups can be identified in terms of attitude to the perceived “enemy nation”. The younger generation is more aggressive because of the propaganda in education, media and many spheres of public life and the absence of communication between the sides. Moreover, absence of favorable conditions for alternative thinking further enhances aggressive posture among the youth. In all spheres of life – including in education – aggressiveness is dictated to them. Young people with alternative views in both societies are those who at least once visited a third country and met the members of the opposite side at meetings, conferences or workshops. Compared to youth, the middle-aged generation of both societies is less aggressive toward each other. Despite the fact that their youth coincided with the war years, they studied together in the same educational system and witnessed the negative aspects and tragedy of war. The perception of the older generation is totally different. In the discussion with them, I have noticed that most of them remember how they lived together friendly, in peace before the war. If we summarize the thoughts mentioned above, for the most part, people who completed their education before the war took place and therefore did not undergo the influence of war-prone textbooks and school/university discourse, are more prone to peace and if possible, they would live together with the opposite side in their homeland.
Given the above described state of affairs, the concept of education as a peace facilitator seems unattainable. Nevertheless, in some conflict contexts there is an effort to shift the rhetoric within the education system. As an example of education as facilitator for peace, I want to stress the Israel-Palestinian conflict which is going on, nowadays. In spite of this situation, there are some joint schools which the target is to teach the history of the region from both side’s perspectives. In the current situation, to implement this kind of long-term project does not seem possible within the Azerbaijani and Armenian education systems, which are under the ideological monopoly by their states. While some private universities may have more autonomy to include history curriculum based on joint textbooks, it is more realistic that different projects on conflict transformation and confidence-building measures by local organizations from both sides will serve as informal avenues for peace education. It is important to use these opportunities of non-governmental organizations and institutions working in this field and the methods of non-formal education. Educating youth on conflict resolution skills and providing them with an alternative view is the starting point of peace.
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