On Turkey: Secularism, Education, and the Battle for Turkish Youth

In Turkey, what one could consider a fairly religiously homogenous nation with a 90% Muslim majority, a new schism is emerging over new educational reforms that many Turkish citizens see as a threat to the foundation of Turkish society. The battle  between the secularists and the AKP, Turkey’s ruling conservative party, over religion's place in the public sphere has now come to a boiling point in the country’s educational spaces. Recent reforms under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and head of the AKP, have sought to strengthen religions, specifically Islam’s, position within the school system. This leaves many questioning whether the AKP is using education as a way to control the next generation. Education has become the newest battleground over Turkey’s place as a secular nation. However although education may seem to be a more recent point of discord between the two opposing sides, educational spaces have always served as a spark point for arguments over the place of religion in schools: a topic that is directly link by the battle between the two groups to influence the opinion of the next generation.

Turkey’s secularism has always been a highly contentious subject among the populace. First espoused by Kemal Ataturk, the country’s leader from 1923 to 1938, Turkish secularism attempted to bring the country closer to the West and to form a country that no longer dominated by religious conservatism. With the movement of rural agrarian peoples into urban centers, the divide between the religiously conservative and the secularists became increasingly apparent. The Urban elite bulked at the conservative traditions, such as the wearing of the headscarf, which rural immigrants brought to the more progressive, western influenced cities. It was during this time period from the 1960s to the 1980s that the nature of secularism within the schooling system first became a contentious topic. Before the migration of rural to urban, the Turkish higher education system had been dominated by the secular elites. However after the population shift, more and more traditional Muslims sought access to the realms of the Universities. These changing demographics came to be seen by the secular and military elite as a threat to the Kemalist identity and a sign of a return to pre-Revolutionary backwards values. It was the head scarf bans of 1980 and 1981 that marked the beginning of the real suppression of religion within the educational sphere. These laws prohibited women from attending universities while wearing the headscarf. Many detractors argued that the law suppressed religious identity and targeted women while others stated that these laws merely echoed the Fez bans of Ataturk’s early years in power. The head scarf became one of the most contentious issues within the field of education and a representation of the continuous struggle over secularism. 

This struggle has once again come to a head with the emergence of the AKP, also known as the Justice and Development Organization, a moderate Islamist party that under the rule of Tayip Erdogan, has steadily gained support throughout the country’s Muslim majority. However many secular Muslims and Kemalists view the reforms that the AKP has put in place as a major threat to Turkish Secularism. Recently, Erdogan and his tightly controlled Ministry of Religion have been issuing more and more policy changes that drastically affect the previously secular Turkish political system. Erdogan has been referencing producing more and more references to Islam within his public speeches even going so far as to mention his wish to raise a “pious youth”. With growing government censorship over negative depictions of the AKP and Erdogan, many political dissidents now feel that the government threatens the very nature of the Turkish republic, with the latest place of conflict being the Turkish educational system.

These reforms have been a sweeping process that continues to change the landscape of the Turkish educational system. Firstly Erdogan targeted the headdress ban, stating that it was a matter of religious freedom. He and his Ministry of Education soon removed the head scarf ban altogether. Critics say that the headscarf makes other less religious Muslims and minorities feel uncomfortable and pressured to an expression of religious faith. Next to come under attack was the curriculum of the Schools. Under Erdogan, classes on religion, specifically focusing of Islam, have been promoted at the expense of other subjects. The 4 +4+4 plan is just the latest in his numerous attempts to bring religion into the educational space. This new plan, launched in 2012, enables children to enter vocational schools from an early age. Although seemingly innocuous, many have pointed out that this plan seems to focus on the promoting of religious vocational schools, known as Imam Hatips, and the herding of younger and younger children into the influence of the AKP’s Islamic Policies. Although the plan is meant to give children the choice when they enter high school of whether or not they wish to enter the Imam Hatips, the state has undergone the process of converting many secular schools into religious training grounds. This means that more and more of high school aged children now find themselves assigned to religious schools instead of secular high schools. These schools contain up to 13 hours a day of religious training in Sunni Islam and often have a strict separation of the sexes. Many secularists and religious minorities worry that the government is now using education as a tool to influence the next generation and create a submissive populace. The Turkish Government has recently come under pressure from the EU Court of Human Rights, which argued that the governments educational policy, especially in relation to the mandatory ethics and religion classes that the Turkish government requires even secular high schools to have, violate the rights of religious and ethnic minorities within the country’s borders. However, a large percentage of the population views the changes as a positive development that enables government education to represent the religious needs of the majority of Turkish citizens. 

Now even higher education is facing government pressure to implement the AKP’s version of Sunni Islam into the day to day practices of universities. Recently there has been an allocation of government funds to set up an International Islamic University, an incredibly divisive move in a country so polarized over the secularism debate. Also more and more universities are required to build mosques on their campus, the most recent being Tunceli University, a university widely affiliated with Alevism, a division of Islam not officially recognized by the current Turkish governments. These placements are sponsored by the Directorate of Religious affairs, which shares close ties to the prime minister and president’s office. Many see these actions as attempts to undermine university activism and to diminish dynamic youth activities that may pose a threat to the Justice and Development party. The see these policy as designed to ruptures pockets of engaged citizens and create a submissive culture that will blindly follow the AKP’s command. 

Turkey has an incredibly young population. According to recent statistics over half of the Turkish people are now under 30. Whoever controls the youth will be able to maintain a strong hold over the county’s policies in general. Opponents of the AKP worry that the reforms to education are part of a broader political process to pivot away from the West and reconnect with the Ottoman past. One new reform seems to support this theory as one of the latest policies launched by Tayyip Erdogan is the instatement into the curriculum of the language of Ottoman, a combination of modern Turkish, Arabic and Farsi that has not been in use since the Empire’s collapse following World War I. There is growing debate over whether the school system has become just another pawn in Erdogan and the Justice and Development party’s plan to consolidate power and push the Turkish population to their own ideological stance and to substantiate Erdogans Megalomaniac claims to a reestablished Ottoman order.

Written by Anne Hulthen