“Our schools have been handed over to religious groups!”

In 2012, then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan told a crowd of Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth members: “I want you to take ownership of your religion!”

Erdoğan repeated these words frequently in the following years, never giving up on his mantra of “raising a pious generation” through the education system.

Today, religious groups and foundations in Turkey are living through a golden age.

“Our schools have been completely given over to religious communities!” Feray Aytekin Aydoğan, the General Manager of the Educators and Scientists Union (Eğitim-Sen), Turkey’s largest trade union, told Ahval.

A “Values Education Curriculum” devised by the Ensar Foundation, an Islamist group whose employees have been accused of child abuse in the student dormitories it runs, has become an important part of the education system, as the Ministry of Education (MEB) enters into direct agreements with religious communities and sects to implement it.

Aydoğan said these agreements were first entered into in 2012, but that they have become widespread under the state of emergency implemented after an aborted coup in July 2016.

Aydoğan condemned the religious polarisation pushed by these conservative groups, saying that books published by them are frequently distributed with the support of the MEB despite containing hate speech directed at adherents of other religions.

The mainstream public education sector has been run down in order to promote religious schools and private schools, which are often themselves run by religious foundations, Aydoğan said.

“Poor children have been presented with the option of either being cheap labour or going to religious schools,” she said.

Aydoğan said she had called upon teachers and parents to “join the fight.”

“Ever since AKP came to power, the past 15-16 years, they have interfered the most with education. But, the most critical point has been since the 4–4–4 reforms.”

These reforms restructured the state education system to include three tiers of four-year schools, also expanding the amount of time students could spend in religious education.

“Even though mixed education is the law, and religious schools are established according to this law, in the majority of these schools, children are separated by sex, and single-sex education has become the de facto norm,” Aydoğan said.

“For years, while our schools have not had libraries, laboratories, or sports centres, now, schools, including pre-schools, must have a prayer salon or masjid. We see girls as young as nine covering their hair and bodies.”

“Since, 2012, our schools have been taken over by religious groups, which has lead to a polarised society, where people are criticised for their sexual orientation, beliefs, identities, and thoughts. Even more dangerous, this is being carried out in pre-schools,” she said.

“These groups are supported financially by the Religious Affairs Directorate and MEB. The most dangerous aspect of these agreements, though, is even if there is physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, assault, or even rape suffered in the places where these groups are working, these agreements cannot be cancelled. These groups are even above the Education Ministry!” 

Condemning the government’s support of such organisations to the tune of millions of lira, Aydoğan singled out TÜRGEV, a religious foundation closely linked to the Erdoğan family.

“What we know is this, that there are 25 public properties which have been given to the TÜRGEV foundation as dormitories. When there are not enough government dormitories or schools, when the government should be opening up such facilities: to turn these buildings over to TÜRGEV makes no sense,” she said.

According to Aydoğan, the Education Ministry is making it increasingly more difficult to open state run, secular schools but allows religious communities to open schools with far less stringent requirements.

Then, saying that the religious schools are available and can substitute for government-run schools, MEB refuses to open a school nearby the religious schools, forcing parents to make a choice between a religious education, or no education for their children.

“If you have money, you can educate your children,” Aydoğan said. “Or you can get an education based on your income.”

The poor, she said, “can be religious students and professionals, or be cheap labour for the country’s elite.”