In Muslim Turkey, battle looms on the education front

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Progler

Jumada' al-Ula' 25, 1419 1998-09-16

Special Reports

by Yusuf Progler (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 14, Jumada' al-Ula', 1419)

Turkey appears once again to be headed for turmoil. In this 700-year old country of 70 million Muslims, the seven-decade old military government is at war with Islam, imposing western secularism under the boots of Mustafa Kemal’s generals. While some of the battlefields in this ongoing conflict are conventional in the military sense, many are not. A major site in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Turkish Muslims is the system of educational institutions.

Beginning this Fall, the Kemalist generals have vowed to implement a series of new policies and restructuring programmes aimed at Muslims in Turkish schools and universities. While hijab is already banned in a number of Turkish universities, new policies were set to extend that ban countrywide. In addition, semi-autonomous religious schools will come under tighter government control, in a wide ranging programme designed to prevent practising Muslims, women in particular, from achieving the high level of success they are known for in Turkey’s educational system. Even though after weeks of protest and lawsuits, a Turkish court ruled some proposals unconstitutional, enforcing the ruling is more precarious and the future remains uncertain.

Education has been contested terrain for most of modern Turkish history. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, general Mustafa Kemal (aka ‘Ataturk’, meaning the father of Turks) implemented a series of anti-Islamic policies, the nature and scope of which are well known and need no repetition here. Upon Kemal’s death in 1938, the military establishment which he entrenched, became the enforcer of secularism in modern Turkey.

Although the Ottoman sultans had introduced western education into the Empire, under Kemalism State schools and universities were pressed into service to teach the new secular religion, forbidding or severely circumscribing all vestiges of Turkey’s Islamic heritage, and enforcing a uniform dress code banning hijab for women and beards or turbans for men. There have been several waves of Islamic resurgence since then, notably during the presidency of Adnan Menderes in the 1950s when the Arabic adhan was restored, but secular educational policies have remained stringent.

During the 1960s, the government attempted to monitor a growing Islamic movement by opening a network of State sponsored Muslim schools, the Imam Hatip Lisesi system, which would teach Qur’an, hadith, and fiqh to a new generation of Turkish Muslims. Mehmet, a graduate of the Imam Hatip school, recalls that, ‘the government opened Imam Hatip schools to try and control Islam from within.’ The co-optation policy reflected new thinking on the part of the generals, who recognized that direct repression could result in increased student activism and calls for martyrdom. Some also believe that Muslim schools were supported as a bulwark against leftist nationalism. Since then, the Imam Hatip schools have expanded to provide a wide ranging curriculum in a seven-year, post-primary programme of study that includes Arabic language.

In the late 1980s, Turkish Muslim scholar and author Fethullah Gulen returned from external exile and established a charitable foundation. The Fethullah Gulen Hoja Foundation soon opened a series of private Islamic schools, universities, and student hostels which have attracted an increasing number of Muslim students away from the public school system. In recent years, graduates of Imam Hatip and Fethullah Gulen Hoja schools have become the top performing candidates for Turkish university degrees. Imam Hatip and Fethullah Gulen Hoja schools provide separate facilities for male and female students, and encourage female students to wear hijab. Both have generally provided a supportive Islamic environment in which to study, and offer relatively standardized curricula similar to those found in most Turkish public schools.

Fethullah Gulen Hoja hostels also serve as meeting places for members of various jama’ats and tarikats. In the hostels, students partake of informal and self-directed Islamic learning, especially studying the 20th century Turkish mujaddid, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, whose works are either cautiously avoided in private schools, or outright prohibited in the case of official State schools.

The growing success of Muslim students in the Turkish educational system is causing increasingly loud rumblings of distemper in the bowels of Kemalist secularism. Earlier this summer, the rectors of all major Turkish universities signed a pact vowing to ban any women in hijab from classes beginning with the Fall 1998 semester. Rectors who are not wholeheartedly in support of the proposed measures are summarily terminated from their positions. The exclusion pact would have broadened an earlier policy, in place since the late 1980s, in which hijab was banned in Istanbul University and at Dijla University in Diyarbakir, Eastern Turkey.

Nuray, at Yildiz University studying to be a teacher, sums up her situation: ‘If I cover myself, they won’t let me go to school, and I will not be able to get a job.’ Though she is planning to pursue a Master’s degree in Educational Administration after graduating next year, Nuray is concerned. ‘Even though my academic numbers are high, if I continue to wear my scarf, I will not be able to continue my education,’ she said. With the exception of the Imam Hatip schools, headscarves have always been forbidden for Turkish primary and secondary schoolgirls, but despite this many girls wear them during summer and winter recess, and on weekends.

In a related measure also aimed at Muslim education, the government is working on a plan to monitor and regulate the Fethullah Gulen Hoja Foundation’s network of educational institutions. Especially worrisome to the regime is the informal network of hostels, which have begun to provide sanctuary for students at government institutions like Istanbul University. Regulatory measures will be more controversial still, since the Fethullah Gulen Foundation and its affiliates are privately funded and administered under rules that govern many other private schools in Turkey. The various British, French, and American academies prosper here, many of which are quasi-missionary in form and character, and are responsible for converting some of their Turkish students to Christianity. It will be interesting to see if these ‘freedom loving’ westerners will extend their calls for freedom to the Muslim schools currently under attack in Turkey.

For now, Imam Hatip schools will likely suffer the most as a result of the new educational policies, which are set to begin countrywide in Fall 1998. Under one proposed new programme, instead of the usual five years of compulsory public primary schooling, after which students could opt to attend the seven-year secondary programme in Imam Hatip schools rather than attending public secondary schools, the government will now require eight years of compulsory primary schooling for all students in the Turkish public school system. Because the schools are government run, and their teachers and administrators officially appointed, Muslim parents and teachers who wish to provide Islamic education for their children will have little say in any restructuring.

The lengthened time frame for compulsory primary schooling means that Imam Hatip schools will have to reduce course offerings and limit their curriculum to three or four years, since few students will be able to study for seven years in secondary school after eight years of primary schooling. It will be virtually impossible for Imam Hatip schools to maintain their delicate balance between Islamic studies and other academic subjects in such a short period of time.

Also, parents are concerned that by the time children enter Imam Hatip schools, at about age 14 and after eight years of primary school, it will be too late to begin Islamic studies. In any case, the future is uncertain. ‘The government wants to close our schools,’ says Halil, a 12-year old Imam Hatip student from Eastern Turkey. ‘They have already sent bad teachers and uncovered women into our classrooms,’ he laments, ‘and now my generation may be the last to attend Imam Hatip schools.’

Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998

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