Turkey was long renowned for its secular government, a modern state guided by the vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he built the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the last century. The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has the opposite vision of Turkey as a Muslim state at the heart of a new Ottoman Empire. A report from Reuters examines one of the means Erdogan is using to achieve this goal: Islamic education in Turkish schools.
The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has the opposite vision of Turkey as a Muslim state at the heart of a new Ottoman Empire. A new report from Reuters examines one of the means Erdogan is using to achieve this goal: Islamic education in Turkish schools.
“Erdogan has said one of his goals is to forge a ‘pious generation’ in predominantly Muslim Turkey ‘that will work for the construction of a new civilization.’ His recent speeches have emphasized Turkey’s Ottoman history and domestic achievements over Western ideas and influences,” Reuters observes.
Erdogan’s “drive to put religion at the heart of national life after decades of secular dominance” includes pouring “billions of dollars into religious education,” including a 100 percent increase in funding for “Imam and Preacher” religious academies. Those schools already get double the per-pupil funding of regular Turkish schools but dramatically underperform on standard tests.
In fact, the academic performance of the religious schools was so poor that total enrollment actually slipped last year, even though funding is surging and hundreds more of them are under construction, along with secular schools receiving more religious education or being outright converted into Imam and Preacher academies. One mother interviewed for the article complained that the Islamic wing of her son’s school is visibly nicer and less overcrowded than the secular wing. Other parents said their children were simply kicked out of a middle school that converted into an imam and preacher academy, cutting its total enrollment in half.
“Islam is not being forced on people. It is not a matter of saying everyone should go to Imam Hatips. We are just providing an opportunity to those families who want to send their children to Imam Hatips,” a government adviser told Reuters, using the Turkish name for the religious schools.
On the other hand, the article goes on to quote secular parents worried about the astounding surge of Turkish religious education during the past five years. Turks from faiths other than Sunni Islam were nervous as well, expressing fears that Imam Hatip credentials will either quietly or overtly become a requirement for landing good jobs in Turkey, effectively pressuring parents to convert their children to Islam. Religious education is compulsory in Turkey, although some parents fight in court for the right to exempt their children.
Defenders of the religious schools claim they are surging back after previous governments suppressed them, in response to growing Turkish suspicion of Western ideals and a desire for more moral instruction for children.
Al-Monitor speculated on Tuesday that Erdogan’s drive to Islamicize Turkey is faltering, in part because the public is growing fatigued with the fiery leader and his endless crackdowns on dissent and because his presidency has been so divisive among ethnic and religious groups. The article cited the poor academic performance of Imam Hatip schools as one sign that Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood are losing their grip on the country.
Some of the other indicators described by Al-Monitor have a sad-trombone comedic quality to them, like Erdogan asking a rally, “Who does the Islamic world look up to?” and losing his composure when they did not reply or growing even angrier when he castigated a Kurdish town for voting against his assumption of dictatorial powers last year, and the crowd broke into thunderous applause instead of booing as he expected.
Another flaw in Erdogan’s plan to resurrect the Ottoman Empire is that many Turks are not as nakedly nationalistic or eager to break away from the West as he is. Erdogan’s authoritarian bent has already caused considerable friction with the West, and he is poised on the edge of taking actions that could damage international relations beyond repair, most imminently a possible attack on Kurdish positions in Syria that threatens American troops stationed in the region.