Turkish parents fear indoctrination at compulsory religious classes despite ECHR ruling

The new school year has started in Turkey, bringing with it a new round in the long-running debate over compulsory religious classes.

Religious classes were made compulsory for all Turkish schoolchildren in a constitution written after the 1980 military coup, a period when Turkish leaders sought to instil an ideological synthesis of Turkish nationalism and Islam.

But the strictly Sunni interpretation of Islam taught in the classes has long been a source of discontent for Turks who are irreligious or follow other faiths, such as Alevis, the country’s largest religious minority. Concerned parents repeat their objections every year, but little has been done to make the classes more inclusive.

“My son started the classes last year. He was brought up as a sceptical person at our home, so he is facing difficulties when he questions subjects which are taught in school,” said Ahmet Çekimli, the father of an 11-year-old boy at a private school.

Ayşe Kayatürk sees the value of religious education for her children, but she is against the didactic approach taken in the compulsory classes, and has been alarmed by some of the ideas her daughter has come home with.

“One day, she came back from school with the idea that the act of killing a person can be a good deed in some circumstances, in the context of jihad. I don’t understand how this subject is taught to children,” said Kayatürk.

Ali Karamanoğlu is one of many Alevi parents grappling with the fact that their children are being forced to learn a different creed from their own in school.

“Our children are assimilated through the compulsory classes. They are being exposed to the Sunni faith without our consent,” Karamanoğlu said.

Estimates say as many as 20 percent of Turks are Alevis. But the heterodox Muslim faith is poorly represented by Turkish educational and religious authorities, which almost exclusively focus on Sunni Islam, the majority faith.

İbrahim Karakuş, the father of another Alevi family, said some children from his community were being taught at religious classes that Alevi beliefs were superstitions.

“I know some cases in which parents were humiliated by their children because of that,” Karakuş said.

Alevism is viewed by some religious groups as contrary to Islam, since many of its proponents are staunchly secularist and some drink alcohol. Alevis have long expressed concerns that the state is pursuing policies that aim to assimilate them.

“If the child does not want to take the classes, he or she should be exempted from the class. But, if they are to be compulsory in any case, every faith must be included,” said Karamanoğlu.

Karamanoğlu submitted a petition to the governorate demanding an exemption for his fifth-grade child from the religious classes. However, his application was dismissed; so, he has filed a lawsuit at an administrative court. 

Thanks to a string of judicial decisions since 1990, it is, in theory, possible for parents to apply for their children to be exempted from the classes.

But local authorities have been dismissing petitions for ideological reasons, and families have been forced to go to court in every case.

This has led to petitions going all the way to the European Courts of Human Rights (ECtHR), which in two separate cases in 2007 and 2014, respectively found Turkey guilty of violating the applicants’ right to education and freedom of religion. The court urged Turkey to grant exemption from the classes to those who demand it. 

Derya Kap, an expert at Istanbul’s Economic Development Foundation, said despite the ECtHR and local court verdicts, the abolition of the compulsory classes does not seem possible in the medium term for social and political reasons. 

During the two-year process that followed their application to the governorate, the Karamanoğlu family said it was subjected to community pressure and threatened. Their children had to attend school under police supervision, they said.

Other parents have found their children being indoctrinated at the classes.

“At first, my child attended those classes unwillingly. I thought religious education in school would provide him with true knowledge,” said one mother, Ceyda. “But over time, he started to criticise my daily routine with a dogmatic interpretation of religion.”

Gülseren Danirt, a young mother, categorically rejects the idea of religious education in school. “By following behaviours and practices, religion should be learned either at home or in society,” Danirt said.

“The thing which is taught in the guise of religious education is a load of rubbish. I do not want my children to be exposed to the classes at all,” she said.