“Imam Hatip” schools reshaping Turkish education

Efforts to reshape the Turkish education system to create a “pious generation” are the subject of a report by Reuters' Daren Butler.

The report focuses on “Imam Hatip” schools founded, initially, by the state to educate young men to be imams and preachers. In recent years the numbers of “Iman Hatip” schools have skyrocketed. Since 2012, when the education offered by “Imam Hatip” schools was extended to include pupils aged 10 to 14, pupil numbers have risen fivefold. There are now 4,000 such schools in Turkey, educating over 1.3 million students, with more planned.

According to Reuters, the Turkish government plans to double the budget allocated to Imam Hatip upper schools (which cater to boys and girls aged 14 to 18) to $1.68 billion in 2018. This represents nearly a quarter the total upper schools budget, even though only 11% of upper school students attend “Imam Hatip” schools

Despite the money, “Imam Hatip” schools perform worse than regular schools. Figures relating to university placements in 2017 show graduates of religious schools lagging behind. Only 18 percent of applicants from such schools earned places on full degree courses at university, compared with 35 percent from regular state upper schools.

“Imam Hatip” schools are a divisive topic in Turkey. Some approve of them wholeheartedly. Kamber Cal, a chemist, whose son attends one of the schools says parents value the strong moral education provided by “Imam Hatip” schools, “My daughter is now dreaming about going to Imam Hatip, the time when she will cover up and she will learn about the Koran and the Prophet’s life.” He adds, “If there is demand, it must be met.”

Other advocates of Imam Hatip schools say the current expansion should be seen in the context of the previous suppression of these schools. “Muslims have now reached a point where they can breathe more easily in their own country,” said businessman Hanefi Gundoğan “In the last 15 years this government has shown respect to Muslims.”

Others, like members of the minority Alevi faith, which draws upon traditions and rituals that differ from those of the country’s Sunni majority, feel the school are a threat to their lifestyle. They complain not only about the money taken away from regular schools to fund the “Imam Hatip” explosion, but also about the conversion of regular schools to “Imam Hatip” schools.

Batuhan Aydagul, director of Education Reform Initiative, an independent think tank in Istanbul, told Reuters, “What we see now is a ‘national and native’ identity being constructed in education.”

It is not just the increase in Imam Hatip Schools that is raising concern among secular Turks and those from religious minorities. Regular schools have also seen changes imposed to their curriculums. The theory of evolution was removed from science lessons last July, whilst the number of religious classes was doubled.

Halit Bekiroglu, chairman of an association of Imam Hatip members, dismissed such fears, telling Reuters that the “Imam Hatip” revival reflected the conservative religious character of most of Turkish society and a desire to change an education system that previously imported Western ideas.