Did Erdogan reverse secularism in schools in 2014?

Almost three years ago, the AKP’s leader promised: ‘We will raise a religious generation’

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The news on Saturday that hundreds of Turkish demonstrators were dispersed and about a hundred arrested in the capital Ankara following a protest in defense of the country’s secular education system, underline the strength of feeling in Turkey regarding reforms of the country's secular educational system, widely considered as one of the policy pillars of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The protest , organized by Turkish labor unions , comes after activists expressed furor over the so called education reforms by the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), alleging that it undermines the Turkish education system by making it more religious as opposed to the secular policies of Ataturk.

For these activists and critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP’s is acting in line with its Islamic agenda when almost three years ago, its leader promised: “We will raise a religious generation.”

For some people, they see AKP -- which has the lion's share of 312 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament since its landslide victory in the 2002 election -- as reaching its peak in defying Ataturk’s secular legacy in Turkish education, while for others, the party is merely enacting laws needed in a country where its glaring secularism alienated its population, which is mostly Muslim.

“There was a trend on the rise and hence what happened now is the peak of the trend. We are not talking about something that suddenly became a turning point,” Ahmet Kasim Han, associate professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told Al Arabiya News.

While in 2013 Turkey witnessed the passing of legislation banning any forms of advertising of alcohol, and had its first female lawmaker entering the country’s Parliament wearing an Islamic head scarf, in 2014 education became AKP’s focus.

In late September, the Turkish government allowed girls as young as ten years old to cover their hair by donning the Islamic head piece called hijab while attending school.

This became permissible after secular laws, which considered hijab to be a public expression of faith and was staunchly prohibited, were amended.

In November 2014, Rennan Pekunlu, a former professor of astrophysics at Ege University, became Turkey’s first individual to be jailed for violating the “constitutional right to education” of a headscarf-wearing student by barring her from entering the faculty because of her hijab in a 2012 incident.

And in one of its latest changes, the 19th National Education Council of Turkey’s Ministry of Education enforced on 15 December basic religious knowledge courses to first graders and implemented Ottoman language classes as electives.

However, Ottoman classes were obligatory for students attending the imam-hatip schools. These schools focus on a curriculum with religious lessons.

Ottoman, an older version of the language spoken in Turkey, contains more Arabic and Persian words, and was written using the Arabic alphabet, but got dropped by Ataturk in his quest to give Turkey a modernist and more European outlook.

After witnessing an increase of the imam-hatip schools of Turkey, the ministry of national education announced a week ago that it plans to open these schools for Turkish expatriates in other countries.

Erdogan, who is an imam hatip graduate himself, celebrated the fact that enrollment in the imam-hatips schools jumped to almost a million from just 63,000 during his 12 years in power. According to the local Daily Sabah newspaper, the number of imam-hatip high schools rose to 1,008 from 876 in 2013.

“It is clearly because of Erdogan’s promotions of such schools that they were on the rise,” Han said. “He has repeatedly praised these schools for educating the perfect model of citizens as he see sit, this did not happen on one instance but on several occasions.”

Asked if the increase of imam-hatips is representative of what the Turkish people want, Han said “there are people for sure, who would like to send their children to such schools, but I don’t think there was ever a big demand for it.”

Han added, “with the help of some grassroot organizations, who are like minded with him [Erdogan],” these schools saw an increase. It is about the AKP majority in the parliament and nothing else. It reflects the election system rather than the will of the people.”

Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert and associate fellow at Chatham House, told Al Arabiya News that the “education policy is under the firm control of the central government and therefore, it has a major say on the development of the education system in the country.”

“I think the AKP is sufficiently powerful to undertake some major transformational reforms in the education system, including the policies that were introduced by Ataturk,” Hakura added.

However, some of these reforms are also seen as a way for Turkey to reconnect with its past, especially when introducing Ottoman language as elective.

“Erdogan has said quite clearly that he sees the introduction of Ottoman classes as an elective course in public schools but an obligatory one in imam-hatips as a way for Turkey to reconnect with its Ottoman past and its pre-republican history,” Hakura said.

Observers also mull these development as a comeback by the conservatives to have their freedom to practice religion, especially after the 1997 coup when the military, which has long seen itself as the “guardian of Turkish democracy” and Ataturk’s secular legacy, intervened after Islamists won elections. The military issued a series of “recommendations,” which the government had no choice but to accept.

The government at the time agreed to a compulsory eight-year education program to prevent students from enrolling in religious schools, a headscarf ban at universities, and other measures.

“Surveys show that the Turkish population has been consistently conservative over the last 20 years, and what has changed is that there is a greater openness and space for religious expression in public life,” Hakura said.

He added: “In Turkey's case, the ruling party has won three decisive general elections, and secured the largest segment of the Turkish voters.”

In 2011, Turkey’s general elections witnessed the highest turnout since 1987. Even the 2007 elections saw a voter participation rate of 84.5 percent.

“Turkish voters with their high turnout voted in favor of a conservative party,” Hakura concluded.

However, like so many other observers Hakura believes “the key determinant of the longevity and durability of the ruling party will be the state of national economy.”

Asked whether Turkey’s national sentiment is conservative or secular, Han said “it is irrelevant,” adding “This is a parliamentarian system here, people go out and vote for a package.”

However, different polls have revealed that the Turkish people see themselves as Muslim, with at least half of those surveyed describing themselves as religious. So while protests against educational reforms have started and may well continue in 2015, it seems that these reforms are here to stay for the near future.

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