Heated protests in Turkey last week have added more contention to a debate that spans the nation’s history. Intentionally founded on secularism yet still a nation with a very religious population, there is bound to be a good amount of rubbing shoulders between these two ideals that apparently don’t coincide.
And last week, the tensions between these ideals surfaced with the protests in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. Demonstrators gathered to challenge the Parliament’s nearly-completed overturning of a 1997 law that stipulated that only children ages 15 and above could attend religious “imam hatip” schools, according to Al Jazeera.
The “imam hatip” schools, said Reuters UK, specialize in religious education combined with a modern curriculum. If the bill is overturned, students as young as 11 would be able to attend these schools.
Parliament accepted a proposal last Thursday from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party to offer optional courses on the Quran or the life of the Prophet Mohammad in public middle and secondary schools, says Al Jazeera.
But the debate is more than just a feud over the place of conservative Islam in the Turkish education system, a blogger for the Daily Activist argues. It is more like an issue of the “steady erosion of secularism” in Turkey, the blogger writes.
Turkey has long been known for its secular tradition, an Eastern nation founded on such principles. Excerpts of the Turkish Constitution, found on Turkey’s Ministry of National Education’s website, emphasize this concerted effort to remain secular in educational and political realms in a largely Islamic nation. Article 1.3 states that the general purpose of education in Turkey is to raise citizens who:
“…are aware of their duties and responsibilities towards the Turkish Republic, a democratic, secular and social state of law based on human rights and the basic principles defined at the beginning of the Constitution and for whom these duties have become a habit…”
“…have a balanced and healthy personality and character, who are developed in terms of body, mind, moral, spirit and emotions, free and with scientific thinking abilities and a wide worldview, who respect human rights, who value personality and enterprise, who are responsible towards society, who are constructive, creative and productive.”
According to the Associated Press, Prime Minister Erdogan championed the move towards overturning the 1997 bill as a step towards greater democracy. Erdogan, who graduated from an Islamic school, has spoken of government support for raising a “pious generation.”
Al Jazeera states that the 1997 law led to the decline in attendance at “imam hatip” schools, when the age standard was placed at 15. According to statistics by UNICEF, enrollment in Turkish primary schools decreased since 1997. However, enrollment rates increased in secondary schools post-1997.
The bill, which has passed through a majority AK party Parliament, just needs to be approved by President Abdullah Gul before it comes into effect, according to the AP.
AK Party leaders hail this as a reform that will decrease illiteracy and raise school standards. Turkish secularists worry that this will set the nation back in the wrong direction. It could be an interesting wave into a new era for Turkey.