On 13 February 2015, hundreds of teachers and students holding placards demanding a “modern, scholarly, science-based, secular education” marched from Istanbul University to the Istanbul directorate of the Ministry of Education.
There they were met by a cordon of water cannon trucks and riot police.
The demonstration, part of a nationwide boycott of classes called by groups including the Turkish teachers’ union Eğitim-Sen, had been ruled illegal by the government.
Striking teachers faced disciplinary action and elsewhere police forcefully dispersed and detained protesters.
But still they marched on.
“One can see there’s a really serious reactionary siege happening in Turkey lately. We’re here to show we won’t give ourselves up to this,” Semra, an Istanbul middle-school teacher, told Equal Times.
Firat, a 17-year-old high school student and member of the High School Youth Hope (Liseli Genç Umut) movement said: “They’re continuing to turn our schools into [religious] schools. We’re here to struggle against this and defend our rights.”
Education policy has long been contentious in Turkey, and today – not for the first time –religion is defining the debate.
Following an education overhaul in 2012, which brought in the so-called ‘4+4+4’ system (after the number of years of primary, middle, and secondary education), religious vocational schools—called Imam Hatip, or preacher schools—are on the rise and courses on Islam have become compulsory.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he wants to raise a more “pious generation”.
Supporters see this as righting the discrimination endured for decades by devout Sunni Muslims at the hands of the anti-religious ‘secularists’ and an army who controlled the Turkish state.
Everyone agrees that a highly popular, conservative, Islamist government is retooling the Turkish republic and indeed, Turkey’s very conception of itself.
Many hail this as a revolution. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) says it is founding a “New Turkey”.
But with the introduction of a new constitution stalled in the Turkish parliament — the current one dates back to army rule following the 1980 coup d’état—the legal framework for such change is ambiguous.
And there are many who are against the current changes to the education system.
Critics, particularly those from Turkey’s minority communities, such as Alevis, Kurds, non-Muslims and the non-religious, say a new Sunni Islam majoritarian ideology is taking control of the education system and doing nothing to improve education standards.
Some education experts worry the highly-charged religious character of the debates leave practical and pedagogical challenges unaddressed.
“Because Turkey is not having a pluralistic discussion about its identity and its future – a discussion that would best happen within the context of writing a new constitution – the [resulting conflict and contention] is passed down to various levels and sectors of society, including education,” Batuhan Aydagül, director of the Turkish think-tank Education Reform Initiative told Equal Times.
“The more this tension is maintained, the more the superficial discussion is maintained, the less energy and space we have to discuss our real challenges.”
The kick-off call for the classes boycott came on 8 February.
Under rain clouds that just managed to hold back a downpour, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered around the main square in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district.
Pocket portraits of Alevi icons Ali and Hüseyin decorated nearby stalls. One banner read: “If you make education religious, you make women slaves.”
A popular placard declared: “My Alevism is a right.”
“The backbone of concern [about current education policies] is coming from the Alevi community, and that’s plain to see in the crowd today. They don’t want their children to be taught Sunni dogma at school…for them, this is a type of assimilation,” Mustafa Görkem Doğan, president of the sixth Istanbul branch of the teachers’ union Eğitim-Sen and assistant professor of political science at Istanbul University, told Equal Times.
Alevis form a heterodox branch of Shia Islam, though few agree on its precise definition.
Between 10 and 20 million of Turkey’s 78 million people are Alevis and though historically disenfranchised by the Turkish state, many support secularism, not least as a bulwark against Sunni domination.
For Sunnis, this bulwark has been part of the problem.
“Secularism in Turkey does not mean separation between state and religion. Secularism has operated in Turkey as an ‘authoritarian secularism’ for many years. This meant closely monitoring religious education and banning some religious education,” Dr. Kenan Çayır, director of the Centre for Sociology and Education at Istanbul’s Bilgi University told Equal Times.
Turkish republicans considered Sunni Islam a great potential rival. This ‘authoritarian secularism’ was reinforced following the 1980 coup d’état and again after the army ousted an Islamist government in 1997.
Many religious high schools were closed. Imam Hatip graduates—most of whom do not become preachers—had their university entrance exam results officially discounted, keeping them away from the country’s good universities, and women wearing headscarves were barred from campuses.
The state has not simply suppressed religion; for decades it has co-opted and harnessed Sunni Islam (and marginalised Alevis and non-Muslims) to bolster official interpretations of Turkish nationalism.
Likewise, the Turkish state long suppressed identity differences.
Until the 1990s the Turkish state officially denied Kurds existed. Until 2004, minorities, especially Turkey’s 50,000 Armenians, were cast in school textbooks as potential “internal enemies”.
However, since the AKP came to power in 2002 the pendulum has been swinging the other way.
“The conservative actors of today identify themselves, not with the republican history, but with Ottoman history,” Çayır said.
Turkey’s Ottoman past was generally denigrated by Turkish republicans. And though nostalgia for Ottoman society—where Sunni Islam prevailed over an imperial hierarchy of unequal, subject communities—cannot engender a modern, egalitarian society, the reaction against the republic of which this nostalgia is a part, and the conservative community’s references to the empire’s kaleidoscopic mix of languages, cultures and religions, has created space for recognising identity differences that the assimilationist Turkish Republic never allowed, according to Çayır.
One result has been the government’s offering of Kurdish and other minority language elective courses in schools.
“If you know Turkish history, this is a progressive step,” said Çayır.
“But still when we analyse history textbooks and other school textbooks, Kurds still do not exist. There is a discrepancy between politics and education. Politics introduces elective courses, politics engages in the peace process. But education still revolves around a very sterile, Turkish nationalist identity,” said Çayır.
However much Turkish nationalist ideology controlled religion, it always presumed a “Turk” was a Sunni Muslim. That presumption has not gone away.
One lightning rod issue today are the compulsory “religious culture and moral education” courses. The European Court of Human Rights recently confirmed its ruling that these courses violate human rights.
“The Ministry of Education says this is a ‘religious culture’ course. But our analysis shows that it is not. [The textbooks] refer to ‘our’ prophet, ‘our’ religion. If you speak about ‘our’ religion you are assuming that everybody reading the textbook is a Sunni Muslim,” Çayır said.
“This course is a pure violation of human rights in Turkey every day,” said Aydagül.
Running a pen down a sample middle-school “religious culture and moral education” test, Aydagül ticks the questions he finds violates human rights. After two pages he has ticked nine out of ten questions.
One multiple choice question asks students the correct definition of the obligation for covering one’s body (setr-i avret) during the kneeling prayer (namaz).
“This is a question about confessional religious teaching. You can’t teach confessional religion as a compulsory course. That’s a 100 per cent violation of human rights,” he said.
The government “missed a golden opportunity” with the 2012 education reforms, according to Aydagül.
As the first government to rewrite education law following the military coup, policymakers failed to consult the public, “find common ground…[based on] universal values [such as] critical thinking, human rights, pluralism,” or tackle the real issue in Turkish education, which is a general “lack of quality,” he said.
In general, Turkey scores low on international education outcomes surveys.
Classrooms are over-crowded and many schools do “double-shifts” to accommodate enrollment. Students learn by rote.
“The education system is producing an uneducated working class. This is so wage levels and the other rights of the workers can be suppressed,” said Eğitim-Sen’s Mustafa Görkem Doğan.
“The 4+4+4 system is increasing child labour and child marriage in Turkey…the number of children dropping out after primary school is increasing every year,” Burcu Yilmaz, an Eğitim-Sen spokesperson, told Equal Times.
Gender is another big challenge. More than a dozen girls-only Imam Hatip schools were opened in Istanbul in 2014, Yilmaz said. “The government wants to do away with co-ed schooling.”
Çayır’s 2014 analysis of Turkish textbooks showed that while positive gender representations are increasing in Turkish textbooks, there remains a marked tendency to present unequal and sexist gender roles as social norms.
“The presentation of women’s rights and of the historical development of the women’s movement is extremely problematic,” Çayır writes in Who are we? Identity, Citizenship and Rights in Turkey’s Textbooks.
The problem, Çayır finds, is essentialism: according to Turkish textbooks, women gained all their rights with the establishment of the republic in 1923, granted by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
There is little to no acknowledgement that rights won have been through a process of struggle.
Across the board, “the Turkish education system is not driving equality,” but rather reproducing socio-economic inequality, Aydagül said.
“If you are poor, live in a rural area, are a girl, if your parents’ education level is not high, if your mother is illiterate, then you are starting with disadvantages. Education’s role should be, as far as possible, to mainstream those differences.”
This is the crux of the problem, as Aydagül sees it: the challenge of promoting quality education and equality for all.
Failure to do so, he asserts, means that “we won’t have the necessary, competent resources to carry the nation forward.”