A budget for pious generations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to raise a “pious generation” has by now become a national project. Millions of dollars have been set aside for religious education and İmam Hatip schools – vocational schools originally set up to train imams and preachers – have multiplied.

The president is a graduate of one such school that has since been renamed in his honour and duly received $11 million for its reconstruction.

In the year 2018, the National Education Ministry’s budget increased by 7 billion lira ($1.8 billion) to more than 92 billion lira; the General Directorate of Religious Education’s share of that budget increased by 68 percent. Out of the 6.7 billion lira assigned for religious education, 6.6 billion will be used for İmam Hatip schools. This amounts to one quarter of the entire budget for middle schools.

The 645,000 İmam Hatip students in Turkey, who make up 11 percent of the country’s students, will receive a 23 percent share of the budget, twice the amount spent per head on students in regular schools. Since 2012, when İmam Hatip schools started accepting students in the 10-14 age range, the 4,000 religious schools have taught a total of 1.3 million students.

The government aims to build a further 128 İmam Hatip schools in 2018; besides this, the number of religious lessons in regular schools has been increased, and some of these schools have been converted to İmam Hatip schools overnight.

The government will spend 12,500 lira on each İmam Hatip student in 2018, but just 7,000 lira per student at a vocational high school, and 6,000 per regular high school student. In spite of all of this investment, İmam Hatip students are still falling behind their peers.

Only 18 percent of İmam Hatip graduates were successful in Turkey’s university entrance exams last year, compared to 35 percent of regular state school students and 45 percent of private school students.

Besides that, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data from 2016 showed that İmam Hatip students’ level of achievement was far below the country’s average. Government officials continue to maintain a stubborn silence when questioned on this subject.

Despite the increase in the number of İmam Hatip schools, the number of students attending them has slightly decreased in recent years. Although the opposition parties say this decrease is down to the lack of success in university exams, Education Ministry adviser Yusuf Tekin said the İmam Hatip schools would be at 84 percent capacity in the 2017-18 school year.

Proponents of the İmam Hatip schools explain the increase in the number of the schools as a reaction to the “oppressive Kemalist regime” maintained by the Turkish state before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. After the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced out of office in 1997, the army imposed repressive policies that prevented religious families from sending their children to İmam Hatip schools.

Still smarting from this suppression, Turkey’s religious base is today quickly turning the tables. “At last, Muslims can breathe freely in their own country”, said the Muslim businessman Hanefi Gündoğan. “This is thanks to the respect shown to Muslims by the government in power for the last 15 years.”

Halit Bekiroğlu, the general secretary of the İmam Hatip graduates’ association, puts the schools’ rise down to the conservative, Muslim character of Turkish society, rather than a reaction to oppressive secularism. For Bekiroğlu, the education system is now returning to the spirit of this society, after being subordinated to Western values.

“Modernisation and Westernisation were not implemented in a healthy manner. It was superficial, formalist, rigid and directly ‘copy-pasted’ onto our system, and this did not suit our sociology” said Bekiroğlu, stressing that families wanted their children to be educated according to their own religious values. “The children at these schools are being with such a moral understanding that they would not even steal an apple from a tree.”

Batuhan Aydagül, the director of the independent think-tank Education Reform Initiative, believes that a “national and indigenous identity” is being created in the education system. For Aydagül, the İmam Hatip schools are the site for compulsory religious education, and this contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Turkey’s own constitution.

“If even one child in Turkey is given a religious education against her or her family’s wishes, this is a very clear human rights infraction,” said Aydagül, who traces the origins of the religious turn back to 1973, when the eight years of compulsory education was shortened to five.

Since then, says Aydagül, an ideology based on a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” has been present, in varying degrees under different administrations, in the Turkish education system. One of the most significant episodes in the ensuing period came in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d’état, when the military administration introduced the still-present compulsory religious and ethics lessons to schools.

Reshaped by this Turkish-Islamic synthesis, the national syllabus is gaining more distance from globally accepted knowledge with each passing year. It became clear last year, with the removal of Darwin’s theory of evolution from the syllabus, and the increase in religious lessons in regular schools, that the project for raising religious generations would not be limited to the İmam Hatip schools.

As regular schools are converted to İmam Hatip schools, and with the increased emphasis on religious education, secular parents have begun to take action. The number of parents who have taken legal action to have their children exempted from religious classes has increased sharply. One of these parents, Özlem Koç, won a long lawsuit to have her 10-year-old son exempted last June.

“I am not only fighting so that my son is excused from the compulsory religious classes, but for their removal altogether,” said Koç. Batuhan Aydagül, meanwhile, believes that the religious and ethical lessons should be optional, and taught by philosophy teachers.

At this stage, there is an incredible difference between the investment planned for İmam Hatip, and for science high schools, which focus on natural sciences and generally accept high-achieving students. The budget for the religious schools has been set at 1.7 billion lira, fifteen times the 109.6 million set aside for the science schools.

“Instead of increasing the number of science schools, we are building more İmam Hatip schools; rather than creating laboratories that will develop skills of analytic observation, we are opening more mosques,” said Mahfi Eğilmez, an economist who pointed out that Turkish students are receiving progressively worse results from an OECD test every year.

“If we go on like this, we won’t raise new generations with the capacity to invent. And if we can’t do that, we will remain as sub-contractors working for those who can.”

It seems that Turkey is expecting new generations that are pious but not inventive, that obey a government that aims to stay in power indefinitely, question nothing that is told to them, and remain ignorant of what is happening in the world; the products of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis.