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.