When the Turkish Ministry of National Education announced plans last summer to turn her daughter’s public school into a religious academy, Bercis Kaplama grew so upset that she dashed off a petition, and went door-to-door collecting signatures. She got 13,000.
Kaplama and other parents took the signatures to court and succeeded in stopping the conversion of this one school of 280 students. Her victory, however, appeared to do little to stem the tide of Islamic education flooding Turkey’s public schools.
[quote_box_right]Turkey’s President converts neighborhood public schools into training academies promoting Sunni Islam
Shift prompts widespread protest, felt at the ballot box on Sunday
Too soon to say what poll results will mean for classrooms[/quote_box_right]
Sunday’s elections may change that. Turkish voters dealt a severe reversal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had spearheaded the changeover of Turkey’s public schools to vocational schools dedicated to promoting Sunni Islam. The moves sparked large protests throughout the country.
Erdogan had sought a super majority that would have allowed him to rewrite the Constitution and create an unchecked executive presidency. Instead, his ruling Development and Justice Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority.
While it is clear that AKP’s increasingly Islamist policies drove secularists to rally at the polls, it’s too soon to know what Sunday’s election will mean for those schools that have already made the shift from public classroom to religious training ground.
Although Turkey’s population is 99 percent Muslim, the towering founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, planted the nation’s roots in secularism when he founded the Democratic Republic in 1923. Ataturk’s far reaching reforms, from writing a constitution modeled after European countries to banning the Ottoman alphabet in favor of Latin script, opened the country to the West and sparked a commitment to secularism that the judiciary and military would safeguard for decades to come.
On Erdogan’s watch, the government has shuttered public schools and reopened them as imam-hatips, religious schools with vocational training for clergy starting in the fifth grade. In these schools, segregated by sex, instruction focuses on Sunni Islam for up to 13 hours per week.
Kaplama is a Sunni Muslim, like the majority of Turks, but she calls herself a secularist. When asked about her religion, she pointed to the sky, and said: “That’s between me and my God.” To keep God out of her daughter’s school, Yesilbahar Middle, she filed suit against the Istanbul Education Directorate. Kaplama, who lives in the district of Kadikoy, a secular stronghold on the Asian side of Istanbul, convinced the court to reverse the order to convert her daughter’s school.
Sitting at a café in central Kadikoy, where a burgeoning anti-government protest was underway in the square below, Kaplama chain-smoked with her colleagues who oppose the religious schools. After several schools converted to imam-hatips this summer, she and other parents founded an advocacy group called Hands Off My School. Now she advises parents at eight different schools on how to resist reforms. She says she worries that, “The government wants a generation that doesn’t question anything, but is just loyal.”
Between 2011 and 2014, the Ministry of National Education increased the number of imam-hatips by 73 percent and closed almost 1,500 general high schools. Last fall, 40,000 students were placed in religious seminaries against their will, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet. Erdogan, a graduate of an imam-hatip, boasts that the number of students in these schools increased from 63,000 to almost 1 million since he took office in 2003. With no other public schools available in some neighborhoods, families are forced to enroll their students or pay for private school.