From Darwin to Jihad: The Erosion of Turkey’s Secular Education System

Hannah Wallace

Turkey’s secular education system is under threat. According to a 2018 Washington Post article, an education official called for all school children to be taken to local mosques for morning prayers before lessons. While it may be a seemingly incongruous demand in a country known for its secular constitution, it represents growing confidence on the part of those pushing a religious agenda. This follows controversial changes to the school curriculum introduced last year. These changes include the omission of evolution theory from the high school curriculum and compulsory gender-segregated prayer rooms in all new public schools. In the place of evolution theory, children will be taught about the concept of Jihad. Government officials have been quick to stress that the meaning of the term in modern parlance has been misappropriated. Jihad in classrooms will, instead, be taught in its nonviolent variant. This is despite the Speaker of Turkey’s National Assembly, only this year, using the term to describe a military offensive against the Kurds. An increase in lessons devoted to religious studies is also on the agenda.

These moves represent a worrisome trend for those concerned about the continuing encroachment of religion into the education system. For many, it is a microcosm of debate between secular and liberal sections of society and conservative elements pushing for greater religious influence. While 99 percent of citizens describe themselves as “Muslim,” the country has long remained loyal to its founding secular principles. The architect of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, set out to establish a modern Western-oriented nation in the early 1920s. To achieve this aim, sweeping reforms were implemented that limited the influence of religion in public life. However, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party, there has been a gradual erosion of practices and ideas associated with the West. These have been replaced with piety and religious conservatism. Erdogan has long spoken of his ambition to “raise a religious youth.” As a result, education has become the battleground for ideological influence among younger generations.

Statistics reveal an exponential increase in the number of religious schools during Erdogan’s reign. In the past fifteen years, the number of such schools has increased from 450 to 4,500 across the country. Despite educating only a minority (11 percent) of the country’s children, the budget for religious schools is disproportionately high. So-called Imam Hatip schools were originally founded to educate religious leaders and preachers. They now educate children for whom—given the cost of private schooling and the conversion of general public schools to religious ones—a religious education is the only option.

While general subjects are studied in Imam Hatip schools, around half of the curriculum is devoted to studying the Qur’an and Arabic. Equally worrisome is the decline in educational achievement that has coincided with the proliferation of these schools. International tables show a decline in performance in subjects including math and science. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings for 2015—the most comprehensive study of international student assessment—showed Turkey second from the bottom among thirty-five OECD countries in mathematics, science, and reading scores. The results marked a continual decline since 2012.

Erdogan himself was the product of an Imam Hatip education. For many within his core support base—largely derived from rural and conservative sections of the country—a greater focus on religious education represents a progressive step. Religious education had long been a target of secular loyalists. This included a ban on students wearing the headscarf in school and the eventual banning of religious schools.

Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ottoman nostalgia has replaced progressive secularism. The country’s path to illiberalism is a far cry from the optimism of many liberals who helped bring Erdogan and the AKP to power in 2002. Erdogan was initially viewed as a liberal reformer by many in Turkish society; he was expected to provide a bulwark against the threat of military coups and increasing freedoms for marginalized groups.

Over the years, however, Erdogan’s consolidation of power has taken the country in an authoritarian direction. This has coincided with an increasingly religious agenda, marked by an increase in the role of Islam in the educational system.

However, the school curriculum has not been the only target of the government’s reforms. The purge of civil servants following the failed coup of 2016 included thousands of teachers and academics. The coup arguably provided the pretext for removing many dissenters against the reforms. Those targeted included leftists, liberals, and secularists. One of the victims of the emergency decree following the coup told the Middle East Eye that she was “blacklisted on the social security system as a terrorist [and] can’t get a job anywhere else,” adding, “not even in the private sector because employers are afraid.”

The government has refused to back down after much criticism of its reforms. According to a 2017 article in the Telegraph, a senior government official defended the decision to remove Darwin’s theory of evolution, describing the theory as “controversial” and beyond the comprehension of students of high-school age. This is despite its being widely regarded as the scientific basis for understanding the origin of life. Orhan Yildirim, head of one of the biggest teachers’ unions in the country, was critical of the changes. He told the BBC: “This curriculum is a coup d’etat targeting education in Turkey. You don’t have to have guns to make a coup. If you strike a country’s education as such, then it will be impossible for it to catch up with prosperous nations.”

The overhaul of the education system continues to be met with protests by those who remain committed to fighting for a scientific, secular education system. They are carrying out the battle for Turkey’s secular soul in the classroom.

Further Reading

Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace is the author of From Darwin to Jihad: The Erosion of Turkey's Secular Education System and is a politics graduate, a proficient German speaker, a researcher on terrorism and insurgency, and a writer for various foreign policy publications.