Erdoğan’s pious generation vision stirs debate on Islam and schooling in Turkey - FT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision of creating a “pious generation” that espouses Islamic values alongside Turkish nationalism has led to the creeping transformation of state schools into religious “imam hatip” schools and stirred debate on the place of religion in education, the Financial Times said.

The Turkish president has been very vocal about his desire to create a religious youth who will help lead a social and economic transformation of the country. 

Billions of dollars have been poured into religious schools, which have been secular since the republic’s birth in 1923, and universities under the Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdoğan himself is an imam hatip graduate.

The number of students at imam hatip schools has grown fivefold since 2012 to 1.3 million students across 4,000 schools, the FT said quoting Reuters.

Since the July 2016 coup attempt, the government has seized private schools belonging to the movement of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the military bid to overthrow the government in which more than 200 people were killed. Hundreds of former Gülen schools have since been turned into imam hatip schools.

For those opposing the transformation of public schools into imam hatips, the country’s basic principle of separating state and religion, implemented by its modernist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is under attack.

Imam hatip schools have been a part of Turkey’s public education system since the country’s founding. Originally set up to train imams and preachers to work in mosques, their graduates were disadvantaged during university exams and denied opportunities such as working in the military until as late as last year. Kemalist governments attempted to shut down imam hatip schools during periods of Islamist political unrest.

While the 35-hour weekly curriculum for both secular and religious schools beginning in middle school includes the same subjects such as science and literature, the six hours of elective studies in secular schools such as art, music and physical education, are replaced with Arabic and Islamic lessons in the imam hatip curriculum.

Secular schools include one subject on Islam, but students who are not Sunni Muslims can abstain from attending. However, in imam hatips, there is no such choice.

“We have no evidence to assert that the government has been successful in creating a pious generation,” the FT quoted Batuhan Aydagul, director of the think-tank Education Reform Initiative at Sabanci University as saying. “However, the pious generation discourse has caused more damage by further politicising and polarising education and by derailing or delaying policies to tackle education (problems),” he said.