When Itir Erhart, 39, wanted to enrol her daughter in primary school, she found that it was almost impossible to find somewhere that did not teach Sunni Islamic religion and Sunni religious practices.
“We are a non-religious family,” Erhart said. “I don’t want my child to learn about God in school.”
In the end, she had to turn to the private sector for fear that her daughter would be marked out as the only non-religious child in the class. “Religion has become so dominant in Turkish state culture that I was afraid my daughter would be completely marginalised.
Despite international courts ruling that Turkey should respect the preferences of pupils, critics say the government of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development party (AKP) is seeking to reshape the system along Sunni Islamic lines. Recent government moves to convert a large number of secular schools into Imam Hatip religious schools has added to the controversy.
In September last year the government granted permission for girls as young as 10 to wear headscarves in class. Plans have been floated to extend compulsory religion classes to all primary school pupils.
“The discussion has become very emotional,” said Batuhan Aydagül, director of the Education Reform Initiative, an independent thinktank. “Sadly it distracts from all the urgent issues concerning education in Turkey, such as drop-out rates, quality of teaching or the insufficient number of school buildings. It blocks sustainable reforms.”
In 2012, the government introduced a contentious 12-year compulsory education system with four-year phases of primary, middle and high school, known in Turkey as the “4+4+4”, paving the way for religious middle schools.
Under a scheme introduced by the government last year, about 40,000 pupils were forcibly enrolled in religious Imam Hatip schools, Turkish media reported. In some districts religious vocational schools were suddenly the only alternative for parents who could not afford to educate their children privately.
“There is nothing wrong with providing religious education to a pious section of society,” said Kenan Çayir, who teaches sociology at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “But it becomes a problem if parents and students are suddenly being robbed of making a choice.”
Imam Hatip schools were first established to train imams and preachers after the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923, in compliance with Turkish republican strictures on secularism, which ordered firm state control of all religious activity. The schools were largely shut down following the postmodern coup in 1997 when the military forced the Islamic Welfare party government from power. Subsequent laws closed Islamic middle schools and made it almost impossible for Imam Hatip pupils to gain a place at one of Turkey’s universities.
“Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country,” said Suleyman Agalday, a 1995 Imam Hatip graduate. “It’s not wrong to teach religious values to our children.”
After the AKP came to power in 2002, the number of students attending Imam Hatip schools increased by 90% to almost 1 million children aged between 10 and 18, or 9% of all students. Government officials, many of them former Imam Hatip pupils themselves, have since argued that the schools’ revival responds to demand by Muslim families who felt discriminated against after 1997.
“The Islamic majority still sees itself as a victim of Kemalist modernisation,” said Tahir Abbas, professor of sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul. “The reopening of these schools can be seen as revenge against the secularist elites, an attempt to rebrand the Turkish nation and reinvent the Turkish memory. The way Islam is imposed adds to the sense of growing authoritarianism. It ignores differences and fails to appreciate the pluralism of Turkish Islam. The government takes Islam from the private into the public sphere and tries to frame the ‘ideal Muslim citizen’. It’s a very patriarchal, problematic concept.”
Sedat Dogan, an Imam Hatip graduate and activist with the Anti-Capitalist Muslims group, argued that to focus all criticism on vocational religious schools was to miss the problem altogether.
“Both secular and religious state-controlled schools produce uniform citizen prototypes. People should get the education they require and the education they want, not the education that the state deems appropriate to impose on them,” he said. “We are squeezed between only bad choices, between the state-controlled worship of God and the state-controlled worship of Atatürk. Neither side is acceptable.”
Itir Erhart agreed. Soon after the enrolment of her daughter in a private Istanbul primary school she realised that the absence of religion did not spell the absence of worship, and that the pupils were made to swear in front of an Atatürk statue that they would “grow up to be good Turkish children”.
“When I complained to the administration, they were surprised. They said: ‘You don’t look like a religious person, so what is the problem?’ They just did not understand that I did not want my child to be exposed to any such ideologies. The school director told me they were ‘at war’ with growing Islamisation. The other side says the same. What kind of children will come out of an education system that teaches them to fight, not understand, those that are different?”