Critics say that President Erdogan is trying to impose an Islamic system of education on population
ISTANBUL – Turkish students go back to school this month to a controversial new curriculum that has removed evolution and added the Islamic concept of jihad.
“It’s a clear turn towards a religious education and the building of a religion-oriented system of values,” Ayşe Ercan, retired physicist and founding member of Turkey’s Science Academy, told the Media Line.
In a public statement on July 18, Education Minister İsmet Yılmaz said evolution is “above the students’ level and not directly relevant.”
Yılmaz also stressed the importance of jihad to “our religion,” but emphasized the peaceful aspects of the concept, which loosely translates to “struggle.”
“It is to serve our society, to increase welfare, to ensure peace, to serve the society’s needs. The easiest thing is to wage war, to fight. The skill is the difficult one, which is to ensure peace and tranquility,” he stated.
Another controversy is a textbook in an optional class on religion that discourages students from marrying non-Muslims and non-believers and teaches girls that they must obey their husbands, in accordance with Islamic law.
“I’m both horrified and not surprised at the same time,” blogger and mother of two students Elif Doğan told the Media Line.
Doğan pulled her 11-year-old son out of public school last year and enrolled him in private school.
“Because of what is happening, [my sons] will never go back to public school.” She said she doesn’t want her kids to learn morality at school.
“I don’t think it’s the [Ministry of Education’s] business to teach my child who to marry, how to live. That’s my job,” she said.
Doğan says private schools, though very expensive, provide a more secular and scientific education.
“I’m trying to protect my core values from things I don’t approve of. It’s a lot easier in a private school to do that.”
Didem Aksoy, a research assistant at Sabancı University’s Education Reform Initiative, criticizes the way the government drafted the new curriculum, which is being piloted this year in grades one, five and nine.
“The process isn’t transparent, it’s not very participatory,” he stated.
An English teacher at a religious vocational school known as an Imam Hatip who didn’t want her name to be used expressed concern about the lack of information about the new curriculum.
“This new curriculum is a huge question mark for everyone,” she told the Media Line, adding most had not even seen the textbooks yet.
“We have to explain this new curriculum to the parents. How can I explain something I have no idea about?”
She says it’s hard for teachers to speak out because of an ongoing purge of educators accused of ties to exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the government of President Tayyip Erdogan accuses of having organized the failed coup last year. Thousands of teachers and academics have lost their jobs, and thousands of schools and universities have been shut down.
“If [teachers] say something it means they can easily be [targeted]–‘He’s one of them. Get rid of him,’” the English teacher stressed. “Nobody wants to lose their job.”
The new curriculum is part of the government’s plan for a “values-based” education system to “protect national values,” in the words of Education Ministry Undersecretary Yusuf Tekin.
“They introduced a set of values they think are important to the nation,” Aksoy said, but the problem is, “we don’t know how they decided on these values.”
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was praised in the past for removing pro-military “National Security” classes and a nationalist oath from schools, as well as introducing elective courses in minority languages.
However, many Turkish secularists increasingly feel their lifestyle is under attack from Erdoğan and the religious conservative AKP, which dominates the parliament and most government ministries.
“This curriculum aims to form a new generation that…evaluates all things according to Islamic ideas and theories and that will support the government without question,” Özgür Bozdoğan, an executive board member of leftist teachers’ union Eğitim Sen, told the Media Line.
Erdoğan has stated at various times in the past that his government aims to “raise pious generations” in Turkey, which has a long history of secularism.
“I think it’s extremely concerning. The education system is a perfect incubator for creating that kind of religious generation,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations, European and Eurasian studies at Johns Hopkins University, told the Media Line.
“[Erdoğan has said] he is encouraging and even incentivizing a conservative religious lifestyle through financial incentives for women to have more children [and] stay at home, [and] by calling for women to have three children.”
Hintz explained that a strong scientific education has traditionally been a core value for religious followers of Gülen as well as secularist followers of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but that AKP politicians often take an anti-intellectual stance.
“You have an attitude of science, or intelligence, of enlightenment in general being denigrated, even being made fun of,” she said.
“The idea that knowledge is an elitist thing that is undesirable is something that the AKP promotes quite explicitly.”
In 2012, the government introduced legislation increasing the years of mandatory education, but allowing parents to home-school their kids after just four years in the system, “which means that a lot of rural school children, especially girls, are left at home without any form of even informal education,” Hintz said.
The 2012 legislation also allowed parents to enrol their children into religious vocational Imam Hatip schools after the fourth grade. Under the AKP, the number of Imam Hatip students, whose academic performance is lower than students in regular public schools, grew from 63,000 to one million. Many AKP ministers as well as President Erdoğan himself are Imam Hatip graduates.
“There are these public schools that are turned into Imam Hatip schools overnight and parents are then forced to send their children [there]. Particularly in rural areas, there are no other schools,” Hintz said.
Many students who fail high school entrance exams have no choice but to enrol in Imam Hatip schools. According to local media, 40,000 students had to go to Imam Hatip schools against their family’s will in 2014.
Turkey scores lower than average on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and has dropped further in recent years.
“Basic education is still extremely weak,” the Science Academy’s Ercan said, and has recently been getting “worse and worse.”