BACKGROUND: On March 29, 2012, the Turkish parliament passed a school bill that remolds compulsory education. The bill, that has caused much controversy -- and which is sure to remain highly contentious -- was introduced by the ruling AKP; it prolongs compulsory education from eight to twelve years, but more importantly, it divides those twelve years into three tiers. Under the new system, children will begin school at the age of 5, and parents will be able to send their children to specialist schools after four years of primary education. That means, in particular that the middle section of the religious “imam hatip” schools will be re-opened, with children from the age of 9 enrolling in them.
Although the AKP initially pretended that the main aim of the reform was to prolong compulsory education -- ostensibly enhancing the level of general knowledge -- it soon became apparent that what the ruling party had in mind was a reversal of the education system that had been introduced after the military intervention in 1997, and that its endeavor has ideological implications.
The education system that was put in place at the instigation of the military had circumscribed the imam hatip schools. Seeking to curb the influence of Islamic movement, the military had demanded that compulsory education be prolonged from five to eight years; the middle section of the imam hatip schools, as well as other specialist schools, was thus closed, and these schools became much less attractive when they could only provide education from the age of 15. In fact, it was the military itself that had given a boost to the religious schools in the very first place, when it had actively encouraged their vast expansion from the 1980’s onward, as part of the strategy of countering the perceived threat from the left. By 1997, the custodians of the state had come to realize that what they had helped to foster, what they had prescribed as an antidote to socialism, had mutated into a threat to their own power monopoly. The military did succeed in limiting the recruitment to the imam hatip schools, yet that has in fact failed to prevent the formation of other Islamic cadres.
The education system that was put in place after the military intervention in 1997 has however led to a significant decrease in child labor and in the number of under-age girls that are married off. Indeed, the critics of the new system expressed the concern that it would reverse these incontrovertible gains, leading to a decrease of girls who attend school, as the first draft of the bill opened up for the possibility of home education in the second tier of compulsory education, an opportunity which conservative parents presumably would have seized on to deny their daughters education. Subsequently, the authors of the bill took the criticism into consideration, and rescinded that part of their proposal.
Otherwise, however, the adoption of the education bill has been marred by the undignified, tumultuous scenes that were played out in the parliament; representatives of the opposition parties were hindered to speak up when the proposition was presented in the education committee, and parliamentarians took to fist fights on the assembly floor. Although that is not an uncommon feature of Turkish parliamentary culture, there can nonetheless be no mistaking that the bill has both given vent to and aroused particularly fierce emotions; for both its proponents and its opponents, it represents nothing but the final stand-off in the culture war that has been raging between Islamic conservatives and secularists in the Turkish realm since the beginning of the 19th century, and which to a significant degree has colored Turkish politics since the republic was founded.
IMPLICATIONS: Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly did not hide how deeply he feels about the issue when he commented the passing of the bill. In one of his more unapologetically Islamic speeches in recent years, Erdoğan lambasted the secularist opposition which he said “knows everything about shutting down imam hatip schools, outlawing Quran education, denying the youth access to its national and moral values, but which is oblivious to the despair of parents who have been denied the possibility of sending their children to Quran courses and the right to religious education.” Erdoğan stated that with the passage of the bill, “the most significant trace of the February 28 era has been erased, in spite of all the opposition mounted by the forces of the status quo and their provocations.”
Erdoğan may indeed be right that the militantly seculars have little empathy for what the religious conservatives have had to endure; but lack of empathy for the plight and sensitivities of the others is evenly distributed across the religious-secular fault line. Erdoğan does nothing to allay the fears of the seculars for whom the remolding of the school system cannot but appear to be a step toward imposing religious values on the whole of society. His recent pledge to “raise a pious generation” inevitably stokes such fears. Not only will the middle section of the imam hatip schools be reopened, but what can in fact prove to be more consequential is that the Islamic component will become more pronounced in the general curriculum.
That is because two new elective subjects are added to the curriculum, after the first tier of four years, “The Quran” and “The life of the Prophet Muhammad”. Although these subjects are going to be elective, social pressure may nonetheless restrict the formal freedom of individual choice, compelling parents to conform to the choices of the conservative majority.
The authors of the bill have not provided an explanation as to why it is deemed necessary to add these subjects, as education in the tenets of Sunni Islam is already compulsory; other than retorting, as Erdoğan has done, “what can be more rewarding than studying the Quran and the life of the Prophet?” Such comments speak of Erdoğan’s deep religiosity; and that religiosity does certainly go a long way in explaining his resolve to erase the ideological legacy of his old, by now thoroughly defeated, secularist foes. But it does not explain why the decision to remold the education system was taken now; nor does it explain the apparent urgency of the move. The education reform did not figure among the AKP’s pledges to the voters before the latest general election, in 2011. Indeed, the bill seems to have been hastily prepared, as crucial details of the reform – such as its financing – still remain to be sorted out.
While the apparent ambition to advance an ideological agenda fails to account for the timing of the education bill, power considerations may do. Although the public debate over the bill has taken place within the well-known framework of the traditional secular-Islamic divide, what seems to have prompted the government of Erdoğan to take action is the challenge that is posed by the brotherhood of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Following as it does on the attempt of the Gülenists to subpoena the head of the National Intelligence Agency, thereby challenging the authority of Prime Minister Erdoğan, the hastily prepared school bill seems conspicuously aimed at the Gülen movement.
The re-opening of the middle section of the imam hatip schools will not only erase a significant part of the legacy of the secularist military intervention in 1997, but will also re-introduce a rival to the schools of the Gülen movement; in fact, the primary beneficiary of the secularist intervention has been the private schools that are operated by the Gülenists. Even though these schools don’t provide any religious education – other than what is compulsory in all schools – they do provide a social environment that is predominantly religious and conservative, which has made them an extremely attractive alternative for the conservative constituency, not least since those who graduate fare very well in entrance exams to the universities. The imam hatip schools have been the breeding ground for a very significant portion of the cadres of the AKP – forty percent of the cabinet ministers are imam hatip graduates, as is Erdoğan himself; the implication of their loss of status as the privileged locus of education for the conservative constituency is that the balance among the Islamic brotherhoods shifts to the Gülenists.
Indeed, Erdoğan does not seem content with merely re-offering a traditional alternative for the conservative constituency; he also seems determined to take other measures to further check the influence of the Gülenists over the school system. Thus, Erdoğan has stated that the numerous private classes, where students are prepared for the entrance exams to higher studies after school hours, are going to be closed, ostensibly because they will no longer be needed when entrance exams to the university are replaced with another system of application. The majority of these private classes are operated by Gülenists, offering yet another venue for the socialization of young Islamic cadres within the movement.
CONCLUSIONS: The remolding of compulsory education erases the legacy of the secularist military intervention fifteen years ago. But although the move of the AKP government ideologically reverses the February 28, 1997 intervention, in tactical terms it replicates it as it deploys a similar tactic to check the influence of a power challenger. The military’s abject failure to neuter its power rival by denying it influence over the school system may prove to be instructive regarding the prospects of the AKP’s education reform as well.
The adoption of the compulsory education bill has once again revealed the depth of the secular-Islamic fault-line in Turkey. Given the deep-running political and cultural polarization in Turkey, it seems unlikely that the implementation of the law will take place under liberal conditions; an exacerbation of tensions can thus be expected. The AKP has taken on both the secularist constituency and the Gülenist part of the Islamic constituency; it may be that new political alliances, like the ones that were triggered by the military intervention in 1997, as well as further strife, are what the future has in store for Turkey.
M. Kemal Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli are Senior Fellows and Karaveli the Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".