From a complete ban of all religious symbols in the secular education system to an increasing enforcement, the Turkish education system is a highly politicized space. With the introduction of the “4+4+4” education system, the government has taken on a larger role in education policy. Starting from 66 months, children are forced to take twelve years of mandatory education with controversial required courses including eight years of religious education. The religious curriculum focuses almost solely on the teaching of Islam, marking a large change from the formerly highly secular education policy in Turkey. From relatively more inclusive policies such as the allowance of headscarves in education spaces to restricting policies towards “raising a more pious youth” the current Turkish education system is full of paradoxes and controversies. It is highly representative of a country with such divided sensitivities despite its seemingly uniform religious demographics.
On the one end of the two opposite poles, there was the complete prohibition of all things religious in education spaces including universities before the current party took power. This is demonstrated by the former Republican Party government’s reluctance to allow females wearing the hijab even in universities. Although this was meant to free public spaces from association with religion, many saw it as , in fact, a restriction of religious freedom. With the inauguration of the Justice and Development party, this law was lifted: a seemingly liberal development from a seemingly liberal party. However, after repetitive electoral success, the rhetoric of the Justice and Development Party is becoming increasingly more divisive and majoritarian in its approach to religion. With the former prime minister/recent president Erdogan claiming that he wants to raise a more “pious youth”, the secular face of Turkey doesn’t seem so secular anymore.
Within the current Turkish education system, created by the Justice and Development party, religion classes are currently obligatory starting from grade 4 in elementary school to grade 12 in high school. The required education class, called “ The Culture of Religion and Knowledge of Ethics” is under intense scrutiny for lack of objectivity and heavy focus on Islam. Within Turkey both private and public schools must follow the turkish state curriculum, so even private schools must impose this class on their students. Additionally, there is an increasing number of “imam hatip” high schools and middle schools that are emerging within the education space. These are religious vocational high schools and middle schools that serve the purpose of raising a “pious youth”. However, with current government policy, these schools are deeply supported by the state.
With these developments, many parents are reporting their concern that their children are being subjected to religious propaganda for political reasons. However, religion in education has never been a topic to be taken lightly within Turkish politics. Currently, there are also debates about coed education and how it is preventing the success of female students The architect of most Turkish education policies “Eğitim Bir Sen”, a Turkish education union, has recently brought this subject to the attention of the government. It is claimed that according to requests by the parents, the Ministry of Education will be able to decide which schools will be segregated by gender if this policy is adapted. However, this policy is highly divisive, as the separation of genders in education seems to possess highly religious undertones and many are worried that it merely another attempt of the state to tighten it’s grasp over the education of its youth.
All in all, the implications of religion in the Turkish education system are more and more obvious, and the Turkish education system is becoming increasingly more ideologically and religiously driven. As f As Andrew Finkle of the New York Times said: “ The government is playing politics with pedagogy.”
Piril Ozgercin and Anne Hulthen