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Turkey's Religious Schools Being Used as Model to Fight Islamic Extremism

Turkey's religious schools are seen as leading the way to a less extremist religious education for young Afghans and Pakistanis. Called Imam-Hatip, they are drastically different from madrasas - or religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan - in both curriculum and teaching methods.

The sound of children playing basketball before the start of classes could be coming from any school playground in the world.

But the melodic tune summoning these children to class makes it clear that this is a very different type of education.

At the Fatih Imam-Hatip in Istanbul children spend a great deal of time reciting again and again, the verses of the Koran.

For 20 hours a week they study the holy book and many of the children aspire to become Imams, like 14 year old Emre Can.

He says, I came here to become an Imam. It is what I and my family always wanted me to be. I came to this school, he says, knowing it will be hard work but it is a curriculum I love. My first goal is to study theology at university and become an Imam.

Listening is Can's teacher, Azmi Dogan. He explains to me that the Imam Hatip schools were founded after the creation of the secular republic in 1923 to educate Imams, replacing private religious schools.

But to meet the demand of the country's large pious population who are keen on their children having a religious based education, they've expanded to over 450 schools around the country, educating around 120,000 children.

"Understanding religion"

Dogan stresses that Imam Hatip's aren't about advocating Islam, but rather understanding religion.

He says the children who come to this school, come from religious backgrounds, so they have the faith. So the emphasis is building on their knowledge, to fully understand what the Koran means. He says they also teach about other faiths, from Christianity to Buddhism.

At the end of class, Dogan's pupils leave for their next lesson, mathematics. While a certain percentage of the program is devoted to religious studies, the rest is left to science and social studies.

The school head, Cavit Erdem, says this combination makes it not only attractive to the country's religious population, it also plays an important role for society overall.

The idea of this school, is that children are educated with the love of science, humanity, religion and cultures. So pupils are fully integrated within wider society. That's why parents send their children here, he says. Also the way we teach religion also stresses importance of tolerance and opposing violence, challenging all these wrong interpretations of religion. The philosophy of this education is based on wisdom of science but held together with the unifying force of religion.

That combination is attracting interest from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, the Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak, said such schools could be future models for curriculum in Afghanistan. As part of its development assistance, Turkey has agreed to cooperate in helping set up educational programs in Afghanistan.

Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul Technical University says this is key to stopping religious schools, or Madrases, in Afghanistan and Pakistan from becoming training grounds for both the Taliban and al-Qaida.

"Key in countering extremism"

An expert on Islam and the state, she says the Imam-Hatip model transfers religious education away from private mosque-based schools into the hands of the state. That, she says, is key in countering extremism.

"If the curriculum system is set up in a balanced way, it would be a very fruitful secondary education for islamic countries, faith-based countries like Afghanistan Pakistan etc," said Gozaydin. "I mean if they happen to be able to set up centralized institutions in order to give the curriculum that they prefer to give that would be a solution for quite a many problems like extremism."

But where as Imam-Hatips are increasingly being seen as a possible part of solution to countering extremism in Islamic countries, in secular Turkey some see them as a threat to secularism. Critics claim its creating a parallel education system that divides society.

But supporters of the schools claim there are strict controls that are enforced on the schools to stress secularism. And, teachers and administrators are regularly rotated between religious and non-religious schools to strike that balance.

At the Fitah Imam-Hatip, physics teacher Onur Cevick Taner is preparing her students for mock exams in preparation for their university entrance exams.

She says the school's offers options for children who are not interested in a religious vocation.

Ramazan Ocal is one of those students. He is now thinking of studying music at the conservatory , but his plans could change, he says. He could also study geography. He says he knows the religious classes won't help him if he studies music, but it will have big place in his life.

Talks between Turkish authorities and Pakistan and Afghanistan are still continuing. Turkey's Imam-Hatips could well be the country's latest export as they continue to draw interest in other countries - Russia being the latest.