Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talks with students of the Tevfik Ileri Imam Hatip School during its opening ceremony in Ankara, Nov. 18, 2014.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talks with students of the Tevfik Ileri Imam Hatip School during its opening ceremony in Ankara, Nov. 18, 2014.

ISTANBUL - Education in Turkey has become one of the front lines in a battle between secularists and the religious to win over future generations.

Several proposals by Turkey's National Education Council have thrust education into the center of political debate. The main opposition Republican People’s Party is accusing the council of dragging the country into the past with its proposal that schools teach the now-defunct Ottoman language used during Turkey’s imperial past.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly attacked critics.

"There are those who do not want the Ottoman language to be learned and taught," he said, " ... but whether they want it or not, Ottoman will be learned and taught in this country."

The National Education Council, which advises Turkey's Ministry of Education, called for compulsory religious classes in high schools to be doubled to two hours a week and extended to all ages. The council also said nursery schools should have what it calls "values education."

More religious schools

Political columnist Cengiz Aktar of the Zaman Today newspaper, who also teaches at Suleyman Sah University, said the reforms fit well with Erdogan’s objectives.

"For years, Erdogan wanted to create a new, pious youth, ethically correct according to the canons of his mind and his lecture of Islam, and he is just putting this into practice," Aktar said.

Under Erdogan’s rule as prime minister, religious schools, known as imam hatips, have dramatically increased, from 65,000 children being enrolled in 2004 to more than one million today.

The schools have 13 hours a week of religious training and strict segregation of boys and girls. In the past couple of years, many secular schools have been converted to imam hatips, in many cases with little warning to parents.

"It was a big surprise," one mother said. The director promised the school would not be changed, but at registration he was gone and the school had been converted to a religious school. "There is nothing we can do," she said.

In Istanbul, there have been protests over the conversions. But Erdogan argues that religious education offers an antidote to the societal ills of drug addiction and racism.

A senior member of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the state body that administers the Islamic faith in Turkey, claims secularism is undermining religious life in Turkish society.

Building 'more conservative society'

An expert on religion and the state at Istanbul’s Dogus University, Istar Gozaydin, said the government is changing Turkish society.

"The Presidency of Religious Affairs is being more active in hospitals, women’s shelters, in other parts, etc.," she said. "So apparently a more conservative society is being constructed. However, there is not much respect for the freedom [of] religion."

The Presidency of Religious Affairs, generally referred to simply as the Diyanet, was established after the secular state came into power and abolished the caliphate in Turkey.  

A recent government survey found that nearly 70 percent of Turkish people consider themselves very sensitive to religion. But critics have accused the Islamist-rooted ruling AK party and the president of wanting to end the Turkish secular state, established in 1923.

Observers warn that education looks set to be the center of this increasingly bitter debate, with children caught in the middle.

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