President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants public schools to promote Islamic values alongside Turkish nationalism, writes Fariba Nawa and Ozge Sebzeci.
For the 100th week running, parents stand with protest signs in front of Ismail Tarman, a public middle school that caters to students aged 10 to 14, in the midst of a battle between advocates of religious and secular education in Turkey.
“We are here until the injustice is over” reads one of the signs held by the protesters who have been fighting for two years against the “Islamisation” of their children’s school.
The protesters say the highly rated school of 1,100 students in the wealthy Levent area of Istanbul was transformed from secular to religious overnight without the consent of parents.
Those against the change collected 970 parent signatures, demonstrated and pleaded with government officials before eventually applying to a local court to reverse the change. A ruling was expected. “I want to teach my religion to my child. I don’t want the government to do it,” says Bengu Bozkurt, an activist parent and one of 14 petitioners in the case.
Despite objections, the administrators forged ahead with the changes and now the fifth and sixth grade years, with starting ages of 10 and 11, are studying under an Islamic curriculum at Ismail Tarman with boys and girls segregated. The seventh and eighth grades, with starting ages of 12 and 13, remain under the previous co-ed school system.
Parents backing the religious shift want the protesters banished. Hatice Badem, a stay-at-home mother of three, stands in front of the school after the final bell. Ms Badem says she would like her 12-year-old daughter, who wants to become a pilot, to attend a religious school so that she can learn about Islam as well as science and mathematics. “I don’t know why these other parents are turning their backs on religion,” Ms Badem adds. “Turkey’s 99% Muslim. They should just accept it.”
The case is one of several across the country where parents are fighting to stop the creeping transformation of public schools — which have been secular since the republic’s birth in 1923 — to imam hatip or “imam preacher” schools. They say the country’s basic principle separating state and religion, implemented by its modernist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is under attack.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shared his intention to create a “pious generation” that espouses Islamic values alongside Turkish nationalism. Mr Erdogan graduated from an imam hatip school in Istanbul.
The ministry of education declined to comment, but its minister Ismet Yilmaz told CNN Turk TV in April that parents had a choice in sending their children to imam hatip schools, and that while their numbers were growing, they remain a minority. “Is everyone going to imam hatips? That’s an exaggeration,” he said. “We envision the rate going to imam hatips will be 23% . . . We are not forcing anyone to do anything.”
The education ministry has pointed out that imam hatip schools cater to a minority of students. Still, billions of dollars have been poured into religious schools and universities under the Islamist government of the Justice and Development party. The number of students at Imam Hatip schools has grown fivefold since 2012 to 1.3m, across 4,000 schools, according to Reuters.
Since the foiled 2016 attempt to overthrow President Erdogan, the government seized the private Gulen schools after their exiled spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, was accused of masterminding the coup. Hundreds of those have since been turned into imam hatip schools.
schools specialising in one subject, such as science or fine arts, are planned. Despite the investment, imam hatip graduates are lagging behind in academic performance, according to data from the education ministry.
Religious scholars and Mr Erdogan have also expressed outrage at reports that some imam hatip schools have instructed students in deism (the belief in a creator who does not intervene in the universe) instead of Islam, stoking fears of western influence.
Imam hatip schools have been a niche part of Turkey’s public education system since the country’s founding but graduates were denied opportunities such as working in the military until last year. Previous Kemalist governments shut down imam hatip schools during periods of political unrest.
Halit Bekiroglu, the director of Onder, the oldest imam hatip alumni association, says the curriculum of these religious schools includes critical thinking. “I would be happy if an imam hatip student discusses deism, atheism and different sects of Islam because one of the most important aspects of education is to question everything.” He says the model of western education imitated in Turkey is not enshrined in its culture, and also argues that imam hatip schools reduce religious radicalisation.
The 35-hour weekly curriculum for both secular and religious schools beginning in middle school includes the same subjects such as science and literature. But six hours of elective studies in secular schools which may include art, music and physical education, are replaced with Arabic and Islamic lessons in the imam hatip curriculum.
Secular schools include one subject on Islam but students who are not Sunni Muslim can abstain from attending. At imam hatips, there is no such choice. Schools that remain secular are also seeing their curriculum affected. For example, evolution is no longer being taught in most state schools because the government claimed it was too complicated for students to understand.
But Batuhan Aydagul, director of the think-tank Education Reform Initiative at Sabanci University, says the influence of imam hatip schools may be overplayed.
“We have no evidence to assert that the government has been successful in creating a pious generation,” he says. “However, the ‘pious generation’ discourse has caused more damage by further politicising and polarising education and by derailing or delaying policies to tackle education [problems].” He says the focus of the debate should be on “increasing learning outcomes, expanding early childhood education, reducing inequalities between schools and empowering teachers.”
The protesting parents’ lawyer Arzu Becerik shows a map of schools in the Levent district which has, within a 7km radius, 13 religious schools and only four secular ones. She says parents were spending their life savings on private schools to avoid religious schooling.
After school, a group of boys and girls from fifth and sixth grade play and laugh as they walk home. One boy says he likes his Islamic courses because he is learning Arabic and becoming a “hafiz. He takes out a copy of the Quran from his backpack and recites a verse in front of his friends. “Seventy other people will be saved, and they and I’ll go to heaven because I’ve become a hafiz,” the boy says, beaming. – FINANCIAL TIMES.