Rampant child abuse in Turkey’s religious schools 

Religious schools in Turkey have been hit by a string of sexual abuse scandals in recent years, yet due to links to the ruling party, the crimes are often hushed up. 

Islam-focused educational institutions such as state-run Imam Hatip schools have proliferated during the 17-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has worked to instil religious values in Turkey’s youth and funded an explosion in Islamist foundations in the education sector.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to prominence in the 1990s as part of an Islamist movement, has often spoken of his aim to raise a “pious generation”. This has led to an explosion in the number of İmam Hatip schools, as well as an increase in the hours of religious education for all students. 

Islamic courses are often taught by the staff of religious foundations, which provide dormitories for schoolchildren and have become the stage for many of the sexual abuse scandals.

The latest scandal emerged earlier this month at the Fıkıh-Der religious association in Istanbul’s Umraniye district, where three instructors were accused of sexually abusing more than 20 boarding students. 

Mesude Atay, a child psychology scholar at Istanbul’s Okan University, said children were being failed by a system that teaches them to make moral judgements about people based on superficial factors linked to religion, such as whether they pray or fast.

Children are attending compulsory classes in Islam at an age in which they are not necessarily able to understand the abstract concepts involved, Atay said, adding that children would be better served if they received religious education within the family.

Instead, they study at school, and media reports in recent years have shown that they are frequently being exposed to predatory teachers.

The Fıkıh-Der case is the latest example in a long series of sexual abuse incidents uncovered at similar institutions. Time and again, the government addresses these scandals by trying to sweep them under the carpet.

A vocational high school hushed up a teacher’s rape of a 17-year-old girl. The victim spoke out in 2014, but authorities imposed a broadcast ban.

A 52-year-old imam was arrested in July 2015, accused of sexually abusing three female students at a summer Quran school in the northern province of Bartin.

The next month, Turkish media reported that an imam at the Otpazari Mosque of Afyon in western Turkey had molested two students aged seven and nine. Once again, the reflex response of the authorities was to impose a ban on reporting the incident. 

An instructor of a Quranic boarding school in Beypazarı, in central Turkey, was accused of sexually abusing a male student in 2013. The incident was brought to the court in November 2017, but again authorities imposed a broadcast ban on the case.

One of the most troubling abuse scandals took place at a boarding house in Karaman, in central Anatolia. A 54-year-old teacher and a senior member of the Islamist Ensar Foundation was accused of raping and sexually abusing 10 secondary school students at one of its dormitories. 

According to the indictment, the assaults took place between 2012 and 2016. The victims said they were from 10 to 12 years old when they were first molested, the BBC reported. 

But the foundation, which is known for its close links to Erdoğan and the AKP government, has since continued to receive lucrative government contracts to teach schoolchildren as well as generous funding from municipalities.

Meanwhile, the ruling party continually blocks media reports and attempts to debate the incidents in parliament.

A free media would demand answers, but an estimated 90 percent of Turkey’s media outlets by readership are owned by businesses with close links to the government, and independent outlets are frequently targeted with legal action for critical reports.

This has left Turkish citizens with little recourse but to use social media to spread the word about child abuse. 

As seen in the Ensar Foundation case, Twitter has become the voice of millions of users who oppose the government’s censorship and reluctance to combat the sexual crimes for ideological reasons. 

It is these ideological reasons that have made the AKP so hesitant to tackle problems in an education system it has reworked wholesale since coming to power in 2002, despite the fact that students of Imam Hatip schools, for example, perform only about half as well as other students in getting into four-year university programs. 

“Religious education has been turned over to unqualified and unvetted people through contracts signed with religious institutions. This policy has been the primary reason for sexual crimes at the institutions in question,” the Education and Science Workers’ Union said in a statement.

Turkish Eğitim-Sen, a nationalist education union, agreed.

“Turkish Eğitim-Sen opposes the role granted to unofficial instructors of Islamic organisations within the education system,” said the union’s general director, Talip Geylan. “The Ministry of National Education must trust in its own teachers.”