In February 2012, then Prime Minister Erdoğan raised eyebrows when he said his government was aiming at “raising pious generations”. Beginning that month, his government embarked on a wholesale reform designed to Islamize Turkey’s education system.
The timing of Erdoğan’s reforms was not coincidental. They came fifteen years after the February 1997 military intervention, which had decreed comprehensive changes to Turkey’s education system. Prior to 1997, compulsory schooling in Turkey was only five years; after primary school, parents were free to enroll their children in traditional secondary schools, or vocational schools, including the imam-hatip schools that had originally been designed to provide training for imams and preachers in Turkey’s mosques. In addition to the regular curriculum, these schools provide 13 hours per week of Islamic instruction to students. These schools had grown exponentially since 1973, when Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) used its position in a government coalition to put them on par with secular schools. By 1997, they enrolled one in every ten middle and high school students. Moreover, close to half of the enrollees were girls, who could neither become imams nor hatips. The imam-hatip schools were a deliberate effort to increase the Islamic consciousness of the young generation, having become a parallel system of education that provided a voting base and manpower for Turkey’s Islamist movement.
When the Turkish military intervened with what has been called a post-modern coup on February 28, 1997, one of the key reforms was to increase the length of compulsory schooling to eight years – thus preventing children from being enrolled in religious schools until the age of 14. The university entrance examination system was also reformed to make it difficult for imam-hatip graduates to gain acceptance to non-theology undergraduate degree programs. The reforms worked: imam-hatip enrollment declined from 11 percent to 2 percent of relevant age students, and the rate of graduates entering higher education dropped from 75 to 25 percent.
"The timing of Erdoğan’s reforms was not coincidental"
In February 2012, the AKP launched a reform program termed 4+4+4. On the surface, the law extended compulsory schooling by four years, making school compulsory for a full 12 years. But in fact, the reforms did exactly the opposite. Vocational schools are once again permitted from fifth grade – including imam-hatip schools. The law also allows parents to home-school children after fourth grade, which is expected to lead to a reduction of formal schooling, especially for girls in rural areas.
As columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz has observed, the reforms turned “religious schools from a selective option to a central institution in the education system.” This is the case because the reforms introduced entrance examinations for all high schools except the imam-hatip schools. Thus, all students who do not qualify for other schools would have no choice but to enroll in religious schools.
In August 2013, over 1,112,000 students took the placement test for 363,000 slots in regular, academic high schools. Those that did not make the cut had to choose between secular vocational schools, imam-hatip schools, and a variety called “multi-program high schools”. But the latter are only available in remote areas, and do not even exist in the entire province of Istanbul. In other words, parents and students were forced to choose between vocational schools and religious schools. As a result, 40,000 students were automatically enrolled in imam-hatip schools against their will, including numerous Alevi and several Armenian students, neither of whom are Sunni Muslims.
When the AKP was first elected in 2002, 65,000 students studied in imam-hatip schools. That number grew to 658,000 in 2013. In May 2015, Bilal Erdoğan, the President’s son, who is (informally) in charge of the Türgev foundation that is spearheading the expansion of imam-hatip schools, announced that the number of students had reached one million.
Imam-hatip schools are only one side of the story. The AKP’s reforms have also greatly expanded the religious content of regular academic high schools. In so doing, Turkey is in direct breach of a 2007 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which held that Turkey’s compulsory classes in religious education violated the religious rights of minorities, since the classes featured only education in the tenets of Sunni Islam. The government renamed the class to “Religious Culture and Moral Values”, to make it appear broader in scope, but in practice nothing changed. Students are required to memorize a long list of Quranic verses and prayers, but no texts from any other religion. Moreover, Christian and Jewish students continue to be exempt from the class – implying that the government itself views it as an education in Sunni Islam for Muslims.
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The reforms, far from removing the compulsory classes, extended them from one to two hours per week. Also, the reforms enabled the rollout of elective courses in “the life of Prophet Muhammad”, and “the Quran”. That way, students could receive up to six hours of religious education per week. Meanwhile, the number of total hours of school per week was shortened; and thus, several other classes were either merged or abolished, such as that on “human rights, citizenship and democracy.”
In theory, these classes are elective; in practice, they may not be. School administrators decide what elective classes are to be offered. And amendments to the law in 2014 strengthened the government’s control over the appointment of school principals, who have the decisive influence on what courses schools offer. At least ten students are required to open an elective class, and thus, students may be forced to choose among the religious classes even if they do not want to. In a well-publicized case, the daughter of a protestant pastor in Diyarbakır was exempted from the compulsory class on religion and culture. She was forced, instead, to choose between elective classes on the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet.
"AKP’s reforms have also greatly expanded the religious content of regular academic high schools"
Community pressure invariably provides considerable incentives to follow the conservative majority’s behavior. As Newsweek recently reported, when a student in a largely secular area of Istanbul was exempted from a supposedly elective class on the life of the Prophet to which she had automatically been assigned, she was bullied for being an atheist. If this can happen in secular districts of Istanbul, the very thought of asking for an exemption would not occur to parents in towns and rural areas across the country. It is not a coincidence that the class on the life of the prophet was the most popular elective course in the first year it was being offered.
In March 2014, new legislation was adopted that provided the government with a mandate to overhaul the entire structure of the ministry of education, including terminating thousands of high-ranking officials, who could then be replaced by political appointees. Furthermore, reforms in 2010 made it possible to transform regular high schools into imam-hatip schools; in 2012, this was made possible for middle schools as well. The government claims that such processes only take place as a result of popular demand, but the record proves otherwise. In fact, government plans to turn secular schools into imam-hatip schools have led to street protests in a number of places.
On top of the changes to the educational system, the 2012 education reform made considerable changes to the Qur’an courses offered by the state directorate of religious affairs, the Diyanet. The Qur’an courses, particularly summer courses for children, operated by the directorate, used to be co-managed with the Ministry of Education; the directorate now manages them alone. More importantly, the 12 year minimum age to attend Qur’an courses was abolished. Theoretically, kindergartners can now be sent to Qur’an courses. In 2013, indeed, a special project was launched for the provision of “Qur’an courses for preschoolers.”
The reform also relaxed regulations on the physical nature of appropriate buildings and requirements for eligible teachers. This is a boon for religious brotherhoods that can now essentially run their own Qur’an schools with their own teachers. Finally, Quran schools are now allowed to be boarding schools and to have dormitories – an important change, since it enables the full immersion of young children in a religious lifestyle.
Since 2012, the AKP has embarked on a systematic, multi-pronged effort to Islamize Turkey’s education system. These changes are likely to be lasting, as the AKP is retaining its grip on power even though it has lost its majority. In any coalition government in which it is the senior partner, the AKP is certain to jealously protect the education reform it has embarked on. On top of that, President Erdoğan’s parallel administration -- as well as Türgev, the private foundation run by his extended family that is spearheading the expansion of imam-hatip schools -- will continue to have a strong informal but direct influence on the education bureaucracy.
The consequences of these reforms will be visible only in time. It is not unlikely, however, that they are going to encourage a Sunni Islamic radicalization among sections of the population. Social harmony between Sunnis and non-Sunnis could be endangered as a result. Ultimately, the Islamic overhaul of the education system is bound to have implications for Turkey’s civilizational identity, and on the choices it will make on where it belongs politically.
Republished with permission from Turkey Analyst. The article draws on the author's contribution to a Bipartisan Policy Center study on Turkey’s domestic evolution, to be released in September 2015, co-authored with Amb. Eric Edelman, Halil Karaveli, Aaron Lobel and Blaise Misztal; and on the author’s article “The Naqshbandi-Khalidi Order and Political Islam in Turkey”, co-authored with M.K. Kaya, published in the Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology in September 2015.