ISTANBUL — As parents wait to collect their children from Mehmet Akif Middle School, one father appears deeply concerned. Recent announcements regarding newly Islamized curricula — ostensibly for training imams and other clerics — caught many parents by surprise.
"They will say, 'put a headscarf on your child,' and she'll have to wear a longer dress. They will try to bring more backwardness into their lives. Nobody wants this," he says. "We want our children to be educated following the principles of secularism. Until now it was like this and we were happy."
Converting schools into religious institutions known as Imam Hatips is part of the Islamist-rooted government's education reforms, which, according to some parents, represent a welcome change.
"We are a Muslim country and Imam Hatips are for teaching our religion," says one mother donning a headscarf in accordance with her faith. "It is important for my child. I want my child to learn his religion. All this criticism is an exaggeration because we are a Muslim country, so religion must be in our education."
Imam Hatips like this one, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's alma mater and one of the oldest in Istanbul, were founded to teach imams. But the new curriculum, which combines normal education with hours of religious studies, are popular with Turkey's religious population.
Combining Quran recital class with the normal curriculum means an arduous workload for the children, but teacher Azmi Dogan says Imam Hatips play an important role in Turkey's pious community.
"Every child who leaves here is qualified to become an imam or a religious official," he says, explaining that students are exposed to every field of Islamic study, from scriptural interpretation to the prophet's words. "For the pupils this is not a problem, as their parents want their children brought up like this."
A lengthy debate
Since their creation in the 1950s, Imam Hatips have been controversial in the debate about Turkey's secular state, and many were shut down as part of the pro-secular, military-inspired crackdown on the country's Islamist movement in the 1990's.
Turkey's ruling party pushed through the school reform act earlier this year to allow schools to specialize in religious education combined with a modern curriculum, provoking arguments in parliament and mass protests by secular Turks and teachers who say the law promotes an Islamist agenda and threaten education standards.
But Kenan Cayir, assistant professor of sociology at Istanbul's Bilgi University, says the schools can have a positive impact.
"They promote an understanding that religion does not necessarily conflict with modernity, so religion and modernity can be together," he says. "This is very controversial in Turkey, because in the secular-civilization narrative it is argued that religion does necessarily conflict with modernity, so we have to leave religion behind."
The Islamist-rooted government officials say expansion of Imam Hatips is about restoring schools that were closed in the 1990s, a claim that has done little to curtail growing anger among some parents.
At one protest outside of a newly converted school, parents claim the government is imposing the schools on their children. Ali Boga, a member of parliament for the ruling AK party, describes expansion of Imam Hatips as the beginning of a broader movement.
"We are here as Imam Hatip graduates or as allies," says Boga. "We will increase the number of these schools in records. We have the chance to turn all schools into Imam Hatip schools."
The government hasn't denied has such plans. Instead, Prime Minister Erdogan has slammed critics of schools while his education minister said opponents of reforms were either terrorist supporters or fanatical secularists.
The debate indicates that education could become another battleground in the increasingly polarized country.