Turkey has seen a sharp rise in religious schooling under reforms which President Tayyip Erdogan casts as a defense against moral decay, but which opponents see as an unwanted drive to shape a more Islamic nation.
Almost a million students are enrolled in “imam hatip” schools this year, up from just 65,000 in 2002 when Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power, he told the opening of one of the schools in Ankara last month.
The schools teach boys and girls separately, and give around 13 hours a week of Islamic instruction on top of the regular curriculum, including study of Arabic, the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad.
“When there is no such thing as religious culture and moral education, serious social problems such as drug addiction and racism fill the gap,” Erdogan told a symposium on drug policy and public health earlier this year.
But in the drive to create more imam hatip places, parts of schools have been requisitioned, prompting protests from parents who want secular education for their children.
“We are against the governance of education by religious rules,” said Ilknur Birol, spokeswoman for the “Don’t Touch My School” initiative, an umbrella grouping for angry parents. “This system is not rooted in youth with a forward-looking perspective enlightened by science, but in a generation that values obedience.”
Filiz Gurlu, a parent at the Kadir Rezan Has school in Istanbul where two buildings were converted to imam hatip facilities, said primary students were now cramped in a single building.
“The library, laboratory, computer and music rooms were in the confiscated part, so the kids don’t have access anymore,” she said. “Some classrooms have barely enough space ... This is an unplanned move, kids just can’t simply fit in.”
The debate over education straddles a faultline in Turkish society dating back to the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy, banishing Islam from public life, replacing Arabic with Latin script and promoting Western dress.
Erdogan, who won Turkey’s first popular presidential election in August with 52 percent of the vote, has cast himself as a champion of the rights of the pious, redressing the balance after decades of Kemalism. Opponents say his style of rule, giving supremacy to what he believes is the will of the majority, means their wishes are ignored.
Huseyin Korkut, head of the imam hatip alumni association, said there was strong demand for imam hatip schools, but his assertion was based on surveys in just three regions, the broadly conservative Kayseri, Konya and Erzurum provinces.
He said the body had urged the government in vain to conduct a nationwide survey.
“Changes in school types were decided by local bureaucrats in a rather arbitrary manner,” said Isik Tuzun, a coordinator at the Education Reform Initiative, a think-tank at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “(It) has definitely been rushed.”
The Education Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but the government maintains the changes are driven by demand. Education Minister Nabi Avci said in November that demand for imam hatip places rose this school year and last.
Reforms under the AK Party have aimed to redress the balance after decades of secularist rule.
Religious middle schools were shut in 1997 under pressure from the secularist military after an Islamist-led government was pushed from power.
A secularist government later tried to undermine religious schools by tweaking university entrance exam grading to make it more difficult for their pupils to gain access.
“Those were truly hurtful days. I hope God never makes us live through days like those again,” Erdogan told the school opening last month.
Primary school students no longer recite a deeply nationalistic vow at the start of each week beginning with the words “I am Turk”, a legacy of Ataturk.
University entrance grading was revised in 2011 so imam hatip pupils were no longer disadvantaged, and a ban on the Islamic headscarf in middle schools was lifted last year.
A large parliamentary majority also enabled the AK Party to push through hasty changes in 2012 including allowing religious education, previously restricted to high school students, at middle school age.
While some of the moves angered Erdogan’s secularist opponents, broader reforms over the past decade have boosted teacher numbers and lifted the years of compulsory schooling.
Andreas Schleicher, an education expert at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said the result had been an improvement in average test scores for 15-year-olds in the decade to 2012, albeit from a low base.
“Turkey still has a long way to catch up with the industrialized world in education. But if you just look at the amount of change that has happened, both on quality and equity, that’s still remarkable,” he said.