FILE - Students of an Imam Hatip high school march during a Republic Day ceremony in Ankara, Turkey.
FILE - Students of an Imam Hatip high school march during a Republic Day ceremony in Ankara, Turkey.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - A dispute in Turkey over the removal of the theory of evolution from schools is set to escalate further.  

Turkey’s main teachers' union, Egitim Sen announced it is turning to the courts. 

“Excluding the theory of evolution from the curriculum and obliging all schools to have a prayer room and water closet (for ablution) destroys the principle of secularism and the scientific principles of education,” said Egitim Sen chair Mehmet Balik, “We will open a lawsuit against these regulations and take these implementations to court.”

The education ministry argues there is no religious or political agenda behind the reform rather that evolution is simply “too complicated and controversial” . The decision to end the teaching of evolution was made by a state official rather than a politician.

But senior members of the ruling AK Parry government, which has Islamist roots, for some time have had evolution in their sights. 

“Scientifically, the theory of evolution is already an archaic and disproven theory,” said deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus in January, “There is no such rule that this theory must be taught.”

Longtime pressure against evolution

The teaching of evolution has long been under pressure in Turkish schools.  Teachers and academics in the past few years have complained the importance of evolution was being reduced, while religious interpretations such as “creationism” and “intelligent design” were being enhanced in text books.

Egitim Sen has repeatedly spoken out that its members face pressure from fellow teachers and school heads of religious persuasion, as well as some parents not to teach evolution.
“In the high schools evolution was already taught very badly, it was already being increasingly taught as hypothesis rather than a theory, if it was mentioned at all,” declares Professor Kerem Cankocak, one of Turkey’s top physicists of Istanbul Technical University.  

“So the complete removal of evolution was expected.  Already I see many students who don't know or refuse to accept it.  But this latest change is part of a wider plan, natural sciences, philosophy, social sciences all cut back in the new curriculum.  They (government) want a generation who don't think,” Cankocak said.

FILE - Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (L) greet
FILE - Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (L) greets students and parents during a ceremony to mark the start of the new school year at Ahmet Sani Gezici Girls' Imam Hatip School in Istanbul, Turkey.

Expanding religious education

Critics of the new reforms point out they come as the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has markedly expanded the role of religion in education.  There has been a dramatic expansion of Islamic schools, called Imam Hatip.  The schools initially set up to train Imams, devote more than a quarter of education to religious studies.

In 2002 when Erdogan, an Imam Hatip graduate, came to power, 65,000 children attended the schools, now nearly a million attend.  In the past couple of years state secular schools have started to be converted into Imam Hatips, in many cases with parents being given little notice or opportunity to move their child to another school.
Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast region, which is the center of a power struggle between the ruling AK Party and the staunchly secular pro Kurdish HDP, has witnessed some of the most far reaching education changes.

“In normal state schools, that are designated as 'project schools' have many religious classes,” claims Saliha Zorlu, co head of Egitim Sen Diyarbakir branch.

FILE - Students of Tevfik Ileri Imam Hatip School
FILE - Students of Tevfik Ileri Imam Hatip School wait for the arrival of President Tayyip Erdogan for the opening ceremony in Ankara.

Islamist trend?

“There is an ongoing intervention to make society more conservative, and the government knows that they can succeed in making the changes deeper and longer term by using the field of education.  We’ve seen even in the kindergarten classes that girls were asked to cover their head,” Zorlu said.

Erdogan and his government strongly reject the charge of any religious agenda and insist the secular state is safe in their hands, they reject their party being labeled religious, preferring the word conservative.  They argue the reforms are more about pluralism and that education should reflect and meet the demands of Turkey’s largely conservative society.  But critics point to Erdogan's rhetoric of raising young people to embrace “national and moral values,” a demand he repeated only last week.  Critics claim a moral generation is code for Islamist.

But the controversy about evolution, religion and education far predates Erdogan and his ruling AK, “After a 1980 military coup the generals introduced a terrible education system, they introduced religion to fight against communism, many of the consequences of today started there,” points out Professor Cankocak.  During that period the army, which often likes to present itself as guardian of the secular state, introduced compulsory religious classes and creationism into the curriculum.