Beneath the variety of headlines of extreme right-wing political activity worldwide, a consistent thread is emerging. The attacks are growing and the target is teachers. Brutal and often violent assaults resulting in deaths, torture, kidnappings and other violence have accompanied imprisonment for educators and leaders of their unions.
Just weeks ago in Colombia, indigenous teacher unionist José Domingo Ulcué Collazo, was executed by gunshot as he commuted on his motorcycle. Ulcué worked at a school named after Benjamin Dindicué, an indigenous leader who, in 1979, was killed at his home in front of his wife and children. The Ulcué assasination was among more than 100 killings of Colombian social leaders this year.
Also in October, two Kenyan teachers were executed by militants of the terror group, Al-Shabaab. The killings, in a conflict-ridden area near the border of Somalia and Ethiopia, occured despite repeated warnings by the teachers’ union that government policies endanger teachers lives and cause severe disruption in Kenyan education.
In Turkey, where thousands of teachers have been dismissed in a political cleansing in the past year, union leaders have been imprisoned. In Iran, teacher trade union leaders are repeatedly harassed and imprisoned.
Fueling the rise in attacks on teachers are the growing prominence of non-State actors working to chill the exercise of the teaching profession, seeking to silence teacher opposition to non-democratic parties or extremist political groups. Increasingly, their weapons are not delivered by gun squads or other violent zealots. The delivery systems for their hate are social networking and the internet.
In Germany, the nation’s third largest parliamentary political party is the nationalist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), which has links to neo-Nazi groups. The party set up web portals to denounce teachers who express political opinions that can be considered anti-AfD, allowing for anonymous complaints about violations of the political neutrality that German schools are obliged to uphold.
EI member organisations denounced the portals, launching a petition drive to show solidarity with teachers.
In the Netherlands, a small extreme Right party, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), is also attacking academics, it judges to be “left-wing lecturers”.
In Spain, the largest Catalan independence party, is encouraging parents and students to report and denounce teachers and education staff who do not use Catalan as the main working-language in class. They are also soliciting reports of those who do not consider Catalonia to be an independent State.
Keeping track of teachers is being promoted in both Brazil and the United States through efforts politically linked to their respective presidents.
In Brazil, a state legislator in the rightist party of newly-elected President Jaim Bolsonaro, asked her Facebook followers to report teachers who express “outrage” concerning Bolsonaro’s election. She provided a WhatsApp number for students to “film or record any party-political or ideological expressions that humiliate or offend your freedom of faith and conscience”.
In the US, a website targeting university professors, “Professor Watchlist” is a billionaire-funded project of Turning Point USA. The site makes it possible to click on each state and find photos and other information on professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Death threats have forced some professors to leave their jobs or move. A loose network of far-right web sites pick up allegations generating additional threats, not only against teaching staff, but also against their families. President Trump has supported Turning Point and in an interview, associated himself with the belief that the Left is crushing free speech on campuses.
Clearly, the physical and political attacks on teachers are intended to chill and restrain the profession of teaching, to intimidate us away from providing a space for discussion about human and civil rights, including the right to organise and challenge anti-democratic forces inside and outside the government.
We know why education is a target. Educated citizens are the worst nightmare of totalitarian ambition. The tolerance of race, gender, religious and other differences is fundamental to quality education but anathema to the organizing principle of hate politics.
Everyday, everywhere, teachers, unions and civil society push for resources for schools, opportunity for young people and communities empowered to hold governments accountable. This terrifies and angers demagogues. They have placed democracy and unions under unprecedented and even existential pressure in too many parts of the world. But we are bound together. And neither can be stopped.