Conflict in the curriculum: Is education making the ‘Cyprus problem’ worse?

 Curricula and teaching practices in Cyprus are key in shaping citizens’ identity and perception of conflict on the divided island. Official educational policies perpetuate attitudes detrimental to reconciliation while domestic political constraints hinder educational reform efforts. Education as a whole, as well as popular support for a negotiated settlement, is impacted by the manner in which the ‘Cyprus problem’ manifests itself in the education system.

As a cornerstone of identity-formation, educational methodology and the policies that define it are ripe for political and social battle in societies with prolonged identity-based conflicts. On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus — partitioned since 1974 into the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), the latter recognized only by Turkey — national and ethnic identities are consciously crafted through educational practices and curricula, encouraging mentalities that keep the decades-old conflict alive and emotionally salient.

The history of relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots provides ample material for the construction of conflicting historical memories that validate the cause of one community while casting blame on the ethnic “other” across the partition. After the island gained independence in 1960, intercommunal violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots resulted in the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to the island in 1964. In response to a Greece-sponsored coup and continued violence, Turkey disregarded international pressure and sent its military forces to the island in 1974. Claiming a mandate to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, Turkish armed forces advanced, causing most of the remaining Greek majority in the north to flee south, leaving property and possessions behind. The result was a division of the Cypriot population along ethnic lines, and contact between the two communities ground to a halt for over three decades. A relaxing of borders in 2003 facilitated more cross-border contact, though this is still limited. The two communities, in isolation, continued to construct communal historical narratives of the violence before and during the Turkish military action of 1974 that built upon already existing conceptions of each community’s Hellenic or Turkish ties. In many cases, these historical narratives were constructed in a way that legitimated the positions of dominant political actors regarding the resolution of the “Cyprus Problem.” These conflicting historical narratives served to legitimize each community’s position in the face of the ethnic and political “other” across the partition — especially once woven into the education system.

Problematic curriculum

The problematic nature of education in Cyprus and its critical role in challenging or perpetuating attitudes of conflict is well documented by civil society actors, policy experts and other stakeholders. However, there are significant obstacles to building a consensus on how and if to create change in the education system. The Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR), an intercommunal nonprofit that promotes multi-perspectivity and empathy in history teaching for youth and educators in Cyprus, describes the current education system as failing “to promote the notion of living in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-faith society. So far, this system has been grounded in a divisive way of thinking that is related to the creation and retention of the political problem.”1

History education is used as a tool by parties on both sides of the partition to shape ideas toward peace-building positively or negatively. “Education was and still is used to indoctrinate the national policy in both communities,” AHDR board member Süleyman Gelener told this author in June 2014. “There are very close relations between politics and education in Cyprus and these close relations are reflected in schooling. Governments have a free hand in education and can make fundamental changes at will.”
This relationship is illustrated very clearly in the debate over history textbooks in Cyprus. In the Turkish-administered north, history books have undergone a series of complete overhauls in the past decade. The books in use until 2004 were produced during the political tenure of the pro-partition, right-wing National Unity Party (UBP). These books refer repeatedly to “Our Motherland Turkey” and portray citizens not as Turkish Cypriots but as “Turks” or “Turks of Cyprus.” Yiannis Papadakis, in his in-depth content analysis of Cypriot textbooks, notes that the editions used up to 2004 in the north give overt emphasis to the intercommunal violence from 1963-74. “This period is presented in great detail, village by village and day by day when battles, killings, mass graves or displacements took place, illustrated with gruesome photographs and graphic descriptions.” These events were said to have led to the “Happy Peace Operation” of 1974, in which the “Heroic Turkish Army” intervened to protect Turkish Cypriots. The suffering of Greek Cypriots during this same period is not mentioned.2

When the left-leaning Republican Turks Party (CTP) was elected in the north in 2003, they undertook an immediate, complete revision of history textbooks, producing new books that complemented the party’s stated political objective of reunification. The textbook revisions were strongly criticized by the political right, but the new curriculum was introduced over their objections in 2004. These books presented a critical view of nationalism and removed gruesome descriptions of violence perpetrated against Turkish Cypriots in the years before partition. Though still ascribing a larger portion of blame for the conflict to Greek Cypriots and leaving out the partitionist agenda of the administration in the north, in style and content the books were designed to encourage a sense of empathy with Greek Cypriot suffering and encouraged students to think critically about the portrayal of history.

The revised textbooks lasted the length of the CTP’s tenure in power. In 2009, the right-wing UBP campaigned on an agenda that included throwing out the revised history books and drafting new ones that aligned with the more nationalist sentiment of UBP supporters. Once elected, the UBP debuted the new textbook in time for the 2009 fall semester. Though in appearance, the 2009 textbooks resembled the updated look of the 2004 edition, the content was criticized by pro-settlement groups including NGOs and teachers unions in the north. Şener Elcil, leader of the Turkish Cypriot Teachers Union (KTÖS), told this author on June 23, 2014: “We believe that history education should be based on facts rather than narratives. It should push students to think critically. No history book in the north of Cyprus has fully achieved this, but the textbooks of 2004 were definitely closer to these ideals than the ones of 2009.”
On the Greek Cypriot side, textbooks also have a driving nationalist narrative. The books emphasize Cyprus’ connection to Greece and its place in a larger Hellenic tradition. Racial and religious stereotypes appear throughout the text. The cover of one primary school textbook “presents a group of Greek fighters against a background of Turks holding Greeks captive, while one Turk wields a curved sword ready to behead them.”3  Gruesome images and descriptions of the atrocities committed by “Turks” against “Cypriots” are included in an overarching narrative that portrays Turkish Cypriots “as part of the larger historical category of Turks, who are shown as a bloodthirsty, hostile and barbaric people.”4  Papadakis points to several studies that indicate primary school children in Greek Cyprus “express strongly negative stereotypes for both Turks and Turkish Cypriots, that they have difficulty in distinguishing between them, and that teachers do not try to draw any distinction during teaching practices.”5

Instead of the dramatic reversals in education policy seen in the north, the pattern of Greek Cypriot educational reform has been one of recognizing a need for reform and launching large-scale efforts that are eventually derailed by the difficulty of navigating the specifics of implementation. In 2004, a committee was formed to put forth a broad report on general educational reform needs in Cyprus. As part of the proposed reforms, the need for history textbook revisions and history teacher training was identified, though serious efforts to implement such changes were not made. The leftist, communist-identified Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) campaigned in 2008 on an agenda that included reorienting education “away from ethnocentrism,” and they acknowledged a need to re-evaluate educational mentalities and the content of history textbooks.6 This was, predictably, a divisive issue and generated heated debate. After winning the election in February of that year, AKEL announced an intention to undertake significant reforms of the general education system. They also released a circular to all primary and secondary schools in the Greek south announcing a new policy initiative to promote “peaceful coexistence.” However, they provided little guidance or support on how this policy was to be implemented in schools. As a part of AKEL’s proposed reforms, a working group of academic historians was formed to produce a new history curriculum, though again revisions were never implemented. Politicians, in launching broad reform policies, have demonstrated recognition of a problem and rhetorical commitment to reform, though debate over specifics becomes so contentious that implementation stalls.

Domestic obstacles to change

The divisive nature of history curricula is well understood by educators and other stakeholders. A large-scale study into teachers’ attitudes toward the 2008 AKEL circular announcing the policy initiative to promote “peaceful coexistence” found that three-fourths of Greek Cypriot teachers thought the existing curriculum was “inappropriate for promoting reconciliation” and almost 85 percent believed they would need more training to be able to promote reconciliation in schools.7

Importantly, these questions asked teachers if the curriculum was appropriate for promoting reconciliation. The question of whether the curriculum should promote reconciliation is much more contentious among educators, and that uncertainty is echoed among Greek Cypriots more generally. The study’s quantitative findings “revealed an emotional ambivalence towards the new educational objective: although most teachers recognized the importance of cultivating peaceful coexistence for both education and the conflict itself, the survey also documented a significant lack of readiness and willingness to implement the new objective, coupled with doubts regarding its feasibility within the Cypriot context.”8 Though many teachers rhetorically support reconciliation, the study found teachers also had reservations regarding how that should be achieved. One objection was that they believed reconciliatory efforts should follow or coincide with political concessions from Turkish Cypriots, which they did not perceive to be happening. Some teachers thought curriculum and methodology reform in schools should come in response to reconciliation, not as a precursor to it.

As in the case of curriculum reform, support for reconciliation exists on a rhetorical level, but breaks down when the specifics of implementation are discussed. In 2009, Demetris Mikellides, then president of the Primary School Teachers Union (POED), expressed this tension between rhetorical support and the details of implementation in comments to the press. Regarding another hotly debated circular issued by POED which banned direct contact with Turkish Cypriot teachers and pupils in state primary schools, Mikellides said: “We have excellent relations with the Turkish Cypriot teaching unions. […] We reject all accusations of chauvinism or racism.” He continued: “But we’re not going to forget things like the military occupation in the north, people’s feelings here, and the racism of the Turkish authorities in not allowing Greek Cypriot schools to operate normally in the north. We won’t cultivate animosity, but equally we won’t ignore things as they are.”9 This consciously perpetuated rhetoric of “not forgetting” resonates in Greek Cyprus, undercutting attempts to revise curricula by claiming that these are efforts to erase a shared memory that is deeply important to Greek Cypriot identity.

The lack of follow-through on proposed reforms due to derailment over contentious issues related to the “Cyprus Problem” has negative implications for the whole of Greek Cypriot education. The following example of the disagreement surrounding AKEL’s 2009 general education reforms is illustrative; journalist Stefanos Evripidou describes the debate, saying that “the much-touted education reform,” which had been in the pipeline for years, had gone “off course over the controversial issue of history book reform,” which generated significant criticism toward the government. The issue of general educational reform had gained urgency due to several international studies that revealed Cypriot educational attainment in math, physics and language was the lowest among EU member states, despite the fact that the country spent the most on education and that students spent comparatively more hours in the classroom.10 An inability to agree over the role of reconciliatory curriculum appears to be a factor in derailing and delaying other needed reforms unrelated to the “Cyprus Problem.” A highly critical 2014 World Bank report on education in the Republic of Cyprus confirmed that five years after the 2009 debate above, there are still significant deficiencies in institutional organization, measures of teacher performance and attention to student learning progress — issues that had been previously identified as needing reform. Levels of government spending on education are still high, and comparative Cypriot learning outcomes low. The report iterated the need for large-scale reforms, and journalist Angelos Anastasiou noted in the Cyprus Mail on June 15, 2014, that, “legislation adopted […] in 1976 continues to govern all levels of the education sector.” The article goes on to quote the current education minister of the governing Democratic Rally (DISY) party calling the World Bank report nonbinding, but also offering assurances that reform efforts were already under way.

Key issues at the heart of the “Cyprus Problem” also have adverse effects on education in the Turkish-administered area of the island. The migration of mainland Turks to the island and their status in a united Cyprus is a divisive and difficult issue for political settlement. Turks from mainland Turkey were settled in the north, first as an active policy by Ankara after partition in an attempt to shift the demographics of the island, and later as waves of unregistered Turks moved to Cyprus. In the Greek south, this is a point of great resentment, though it is perhaps equally contentious in the north, as Turkish Cypriots attempt to accommodate to living with their mainland Turk neighbors, many of whom have significant differences in language and culture. KTÖS head Elcil points to a 2008 study conducted by his organization, which concluded that only 34 percent of primary school students in the north have two parents who are Turkish Cypriots. The rest are children with at least one parent who is Turkish or a Turkish settler who arrived in 1974 and has both Turkish and Cypriot citizenship.11 “In schools, the cultural clashes between the two communities have caused segregation and a majority of Turkish Cypriots have begun sending their children to private schools, leading to the ‘ghettofication’ of some state schools,” Elcil told this author in an e-mail on June 23, 2014. His comments reveal the identity-laden fear at the heart of this: “Turkish Cypriots have become a minority within their own country due to these colonial practices of Turkey,” he said, adding that there is an “underlying aim” of “eradicating the Turkish Cypriot identity.” The lack of a settlement has perpetuated this issue, as the border under the administration of the KKTC is relatively porous for mainland Turks who wish to relocate to northern Cyprus. Clearly defining the status of migrants from mainland Turkey currently in Cyprus and stopping the influx of additional unregistered migrants would be a necessary condition of a settlement. The continued failure to reach a settlement and thus resolve the issue of mainland Turks’ status on the island perpetuates this identity-based fear, and as a result, schools suffer.

The division in Cyprus, when covered simplistically, is often portrayed as an issue of Greek Cypriots versus Turkish Cypriots. However, as the divisive nature of the debate surrounding education policy reveals, both sides are far from monolithic. Though the tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots takes center stage in portrayals of the conflict, the tension that exists within each community and how that plays out in domestic political agendas is a major hindrance to progress toward a settlement. Political actors in both communities are aware of these fissures and divisions of opinion, and gain political traction by highlighting them. The domestic constraints of playing to a base of constituents that has strongly held positions on the appropriate place for reconciliation in the education system and in society more generally limit the choices of any government or party attempting to implement educational reforms or engage in negotiation.

Implications for settlement

The possibility of a negotiated settlement in Cyprus emerged once again on the international agenda this spring as both sides’ respective leaders signed a joint declaration stating a “determination to resume structured negotiations.” The Feb. 11 declaration was followed by simultaneous visits to Ankara and Athens by each side’s lead negotiators. US Vice President Joe Biden arrived for a high-profile visit in June, pledging continued US assistance in the settlement process. Diplomatic rhetoric, while paying lip service to the challenges of finally settling the decades-old “Cyprus problem,” brimmed with optimism.

Speculation that a potential route via Cyprus could get Eastern Mediterranean natural gas to Europe fueled some of this optimism; investment in a Cypriot route would presumably be predicated on the political stability of a negotiated settlement and hence provide impetus for an agreement to finally be reached. Some analysts speculated that the economic crisis in the south would make Greek Cypriots more willing to agree to a settlement. The context looked promising enough for international actors — chief among them the United States — to increase pressure to resume talks. However, the question remains whether these talks, instigated largely by external actors, have adequate domestic buy-in to render them meaningful. The talks, like others before them, are criticized for focusing primarily on high-level negotiations between officials, to the exclusion of other stakeholders as well as for lack of engagement with public opinion.

Like the 2004 UN-brokered plan named for then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Feb. 11 joint declaration commits any negotiated settlement to final approval by popular referendum. When the Annan Plan was put to a referendum, 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots accepted it while three-fourths of Greek Cypriots rejected it, consigning to the rubbish bin what many had seen as the island’s best chance for settlement since partition in 1974.

The failure of the 2004 referendum drives home the fact that public opinion is key in deciding the ultimate fate of a proposed settlement. Diplomatic talks have, after multiple failed rounds, demonstrated their poor track record in swaying public opinion in favor of the negotiated settlements they produce. The institutions that shape public opinion are essential for understanding popular resistance to settlement and barriers to peace building on the island, and significant among those institutions is education.

The key question, then, is what effect do educational practices have on public opinion regarding settlement on the island? The numbers offer compelling evidence that on the Greek Cypriot side education plays an important role — perhaps even more than personal experience of the traumas of intercommunal violence and the events of 1974 — in shaping attitudes toward a referendum for settlement. In a 2009 poll conducted by the “Cyprus 2015” Initiative, Greek Cypriots under the age of 35, educated entirely post-partition and largely lacking in personal interaction or memory of personal interaction with Turkish Cypriots, were the most likely to state an intention to vote “No” on a future referendum. Greek Cypriots over the age of 65, those most likely to have personally experienced the traumas of intercommunal violence and the violence of 1974, were the most likely to state an intention to vote “Yes.”12

This age discrepancy in perceptions on settlement is further supported in the above-cited study of teachers’ attitudes toward promoting coexistence in schools. “Overall, those [teachers] born after 1974 appeared significantly more skeptical or negative about the new objective [for peaceful coexistence] than those born before.”13 These teachers’ perceptions of the conflict were shaped by the isolated, post-partition education system of which they themselves are now a part. The study also concludes that “compared to those born after 1974 […] the older generation of teachers […] expressed significantly higher degree of agreement on the necessity and positive potential of the new objective, an outcome that runs against the assumption that people who experience war and trauma usually appear more negative towards reconciliatory initiatives.”14
An overly simplistic connection between the education system and attitudes toward a referendum should be avoided. A myriad of factors have the potential to shape Cypriots’ perception of a future referendum, chief among them the lack of personal experience living with the other. There is no clear study indicating a direct link between educational curricula and these differences in perception of referenda by age. However, the hypothesis exists. Interviewed by this author on April 14, 2014, Ahmet Sözen, director of the Cyprus Policy Center and a research director at the Cyprus 2015 Initiative at the time they conducted the poll above, said that the numbers on age and perception of the conflict give him some sense of hope. Those over 40, he said, “have been the most traumatized, and their traumas can range from very mild to very dramatic”; those under 40, he added, are less traumatized and “it is only the textbooks that […] poison them to a certain extent — and upbringing — but they have not had those direct traumas that they [those over 40] experienced due to the Cyprus problem. So in that sense I have hope. The less traumatized people are, then maybe [the better] it is […] to reach an agreement.” Sözen’s statement suggests a belief that though past traumas cannot be changed, educational reform, however difficult, can happen and make a difference.

The numbers are different on the Turkish Cypriot side, with Turkish Cypriots over the age of 65 expressing the strongest intention to vote “No” on a future referendum, and higher numbers across age groups expressing an intention to vote “No” compared to their Greek Cypriot counterparts.15 This is notable in that it is a change from the run-up to the Annan Plan referendum in 2004, when youth were strongly disposed in favor of voting “Yes.” In an interview with this author on April 14, 2014, political scientist Prof. Erol Kaymak of Eastern Mediterranean University, who also serves as an adviser in the current settlement talks, said the disappointment and current hesitancy among young people in the North following the Greek Cypriot failure to reciprocate their vote in favor of the plan has resulted in decreasing levels of support for a future referendum. “The problem of the Greek Cypriots not reciprocating, at least as the Turkish Cypriots see it, is seen to be somewhat problematic,” Kaymak said.


The increasing antipathy of youth toward settlement leads some to claim that if a solution to the conflict is going to be found, it’s now or never. One stakeholder quoted in the above-mentioned Cyprus 2015 report expressed it this way: “[The youth] simply do not care about the Cyprus problem. If a solution is not found soon the next generation will not have the same desire for a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots and any hope for a reunification of Cyprus will be lost forever.”16

However, educational practices in Cyprus that perpetuate attitudes of conflict suggest that this antipathy is at least in part a learned behavior in younger generations instead of an intractable attribute. While official negotiators continue to struggle over the shape of a settlement, public opinion and domestic political constraints will continue to frame the debate. Rhetorical commitment to the idea of educational change exists in Cyprus. Though the ability to create a consensus in any particular direction is far from a given, the debate is robust. Though a change in educational practices does not guarantee a transformation in attitudes toward settlement, and the effects of change would likely be slowly felt, the focus on an immediate and complete solution has resulted in 40 years of failure. Addressing educational practices that perpetuate attitudes of conflict may alter people’s perceptions of settlement and may also prepare Cypriots for a life on the same island — should those settlement negotiations ever succeed.


1.Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR),
“Policy Paper: Rethinking Education in Cyprus” (2013): 1.
2. Yiannis Papadakis, “Narrative, Memory and History
Education in Divided Cyprus: A Comparison of
Schoolbooks on the ‘History of Cyprus,’” History &
Memory 20 (2008): 128-148.
3. Papadakis, “Narrative,” 4.
4. Ibid., 9.
5. Ibid., 12.
6. Giorgos Charalambous, “The February 2008 Presidential
Election in the Republic of Cyprus: The Context, Dynamics
and Outcome in Perspective,” Cyprus Review 21 (2009): 111.
7. Michalinos Zembylas, Constadina Charalambous, Panayiota
Charalambous and Panayiota Kendeou, “Promoting
Peaceful Coexistence in Conflict-Ridden Cyprus: Teachers’
Difficulties and Emotions Towards a New Policy Initiative,”
Teaching and Teacher Education 27 (2011): 332-341.
8. Ibid., 340.
9. Charles Charalambous, “Schools Union Maintains Ban on
Direct Contact With TCs,” Cyprus Mail, Sept. 18, 2009.
10. Stefanos Evripidou, “A New Curriculum From Nursery
Until High School,” Cyprus Mail, Feb. 11, 2009.
11. According to the KTÖS survey, 37 percent of the
children had Turkish parents, 19 percent were the
children of Turkish settlers who arrived in 1974 and have
Turkish and TCKK citizenship, 9 percent were the
children of one Turkish Cypriot parent, 1 percent were
children of third-country citizens and 34 percent of the
children had two Turkish Cypriot parents.
12. Interpeace/”Cyprus 2015” Initiative, “Solving the Cyprus
Problem: Hopes and Fears” (2011): 74-76, fig. 22A.
13. Zembylas et al., “Promoting Peaceful Coexistence,” 337.
14. Ibid., 340.
15. Interpeace and “Cyprus 2015” Initiative, “Solving the
Cyprus Problem,” 76, fig. 22B.
16. Ibid., 74.


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