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rise of islamism in turkey
role of education
in 1924, ataturk liberated turkey from the ottoman dynasty and established a republic. Ataturk then embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state. caliphate was abolished, arabic script was replaced by roman, the traditional islamic dress was replaced by western oriented dress. sharia courts were abolished. women were given equal civil and political rights. industrialisation encouraged.
one party rule prevailed till 1946. once it was made multi party government, the islamist parties quickly picked up strength and the parties representing their view were partners in successive coalition governments. in less than twenty five years, the wheel had turned. how this reversal occurred is a fantastic study in itself. education, specially religious education, played a significant role in this changeover.
Under ataturk leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made free and compulsory, , Unification of education was put into force in March 1924 by the Law on Unification of Education. With the new law, education became inclusive, organized on a model of the civil community. In this new design, all schools submitted their curriculum to the "Ministry of National Education", clergy was made subordinate to the department of religious affairs, .
turkey was a muslim nation for a long time and enjoyed immense prestige in the islamic world. the republicans were careful not to attack islam directly. they hoped to change the norms gradually. The unification of education under one curriculum ended "clerics or clergy of the Ottoman Empire", but was not the end of religious schools in Turkey. The curriculum of madarasas was changed but there was a new system of religious schools. they were known as imam hatip (literally preacher and prayer) schools. they were meant to train religious leaders who could lead the people in prayers and other religious activities.
the revolution created a dichotomy in the society. the cities being more in line with new thinking on secularism, thrived while the villages could not get the benefits of progress. the economic policies of the republicans produced stark socio-economic inequalities between the centre and the periphery. the depression of thirties created further distortions. to counter the economic crisis, rapid industrialisation was undertaken. the bureaucrats were the main beneficiaries of this drive and it is estimated that 72.4 percent of all new firms established in the period 1931-40 were by the bureaucrats. another aspect was that in order to finance the industrial effort, agriculture was taxed heavily. in 1944 ten percent tax was imposed on all agricultural products. agriculturists who accounted for 80 percent of turkish economy had many grievances against the elites.
one of the main consequences of this situation was the migration to the cities carried on with vigour during the period. by 2007, over 70 percent of persons were in the cities compared to 25 percent in 1945. the state could not make adequate arrangements for all these migrants. most of them lived in slums known as gecekondu (literally ’put up by night’ in turkish). these were characterized by poverty. no social security was available. sewerage, transportation, paved roads, clean water, electricity etc. were not available. in ankara, 75 percent of residents lived in kecegondas.
it is observed that the villagers are more conservatives in the matter of religion than their counterparts in the cities. their cultural aspirations are different from that of the well to do residents of the cities. while the city people adopted the modern european norms of life, the countryside was not ready to do so. the persons who migrated from the villages to the cities carried their cultural ethos with them. their concerns were not addressed by the elite.
this dichotomy enabled the pro islam parties to propagate their ideas amongst the village people and the residents of gecekondos, paradoxically through the agency of imam hatip schools. imam hatip schools, as envisaged in 1924, combined secular education with religious instructions. they were funded by the state and it was expected that they would wean the populace away from traditional view of islam and make them adopt the modified form of islam. imam hatip schools were also to be the vocational schools. in 1924, 29 vocational schools were opened under imam hatip scheme which provided four years education similar to other middle schools apart from the religious education. the people were not properly prepared for this innovation and there was little demand and by 1929-30, all were closed down.
it would be necessary to pause here to relate the political changes in turkey. 1924 constitution allowed only one party RPP to exist. in 1946, multi party system was introduced. the new government of DP was more sympathetic to cultural values of the conservative masses than the RPP. it converted imam hatip schools into full vocational high schools. there was an increase in the number of students but till 1972 they did not cross the figure of four percent of total students.
national salvation party NSP - a religious party - became part of government in 1974. it addressed the needs of the small merchants as opposed to big industrialists as also the periphery’s cultural grievances. regarding top down secularization and dilution of islam in the public space. during this period, the status of imam hatip changed significantly. new schools were opened and by 1980, nine percent of students were in imam hatip schools and the number was growing. in 1997, military intervention forced the new government, formed after the collapse of the earlier one and subsequent ban by constitutional court on islamist WP. to put restrictions on imam hatip schools and the number of students therein rapidly came down. the middle section of the imam hatip schools were closed down. restrictions were also placed on students of imam hatip schools for admission to university courses.
the republican elite included the imam hatip schools, in their scheme of things as a political tool to prepare for more secular outlook. when the primary education was put under the state, in accordance with the policy not to attack islamic tradition directly, recourse was taken to do this through religious instructions and imam hatip schools were part of this strategy. subsequently NSP also saw them as political tools much as the elitists had done in the earlier phase. the NSP stand was that the moral and spiritual fabric of the nation needed to be strengthened.. it can only be achieved through moral and religious education. the basic elements of keeping a nation together is shared destiny, spiritual fabric, morals, and respect for other’s rights. to further this approach, it was said that in all schools, imam hatip functionaries will be utilized. the NSP also gave permission to imam hatip students to join the army as officers.
in the seventies, these schools became the places where various political parties especially their student fronts, vied for a space,. but the main thing was the success in changing the perception of these schools. these were portrayed as means for preparing pious, moral and spiritual men. in the political propaganda, the graduates from imam hatip schools were described as ’a new and moral generation’ which would transform turkey.
justice party and NSP agreed that ’morality lessons in elementary and high schools will be taught by graduates of imam hatip schools’. in short, they were depicted as source of spiritual awakening. in all this, it will be observed, running of these schools by government funding was never questioned. in 1994, anatolian imam hatip high schools were opened which provided more elite education including teaching of foreign languages.
with the weakening of the secular forces and their predominance in army and judiciary, a law was passed in 2012 introducing 4+4+4 programme in education, the three phases being elementary, middle and high. the middle schools of imam hatip were reopened so that pupils could receive the religious education at a lower age. (the middle section of the schools were closed on army intervention in 1998).
briefly ever since the overthrow of ottoman empire, the government has controlled the religious education and the pro islamist parties have benefited by it and are not averse to government control over religious education. the underlying idea is that islam has one correct interpretation and the government should promote it. imam hatip scheme has provided the political and religious cadre which now controls the education.
one factor which has not been described above is the provision of economic benefits to the poor families from the periphery. the rural immigrants in the cities and gecekondos were more at home in the imam hatip schools. in 1977, 55.8 percent students were found in a survey to be from a rural background. extensive scholarships and boarding opportunities were offered to them. apart from state budget, they also receive donations from alumni and others. civil societies offered assistance to both students and graduates. for example an organization ilimy ayama cemiyeti has 85 branches in 45 cities. it has provided financial assistance since 1963 to imam hatip students and from 1973 to graduates in higher education. new buildings were constructed by charity and handed over to government for use by imam hatip schools. 65 % of buildings are built through charity.
how does the atmosphere differ from secular schools. in a survey, it was found that while 55 percent of imam hatip students read islamic/ conservative newspapers, only five percent of secular schools students do so. imam hatip schools regularly point out the ill effects of modernization. according to this frame, the students of secular schools are more likely to be in illicit activities such as drug abuse, physical injuries. the students themselves and the preachers ascribe this to the fact that education cannot be one dimensional. spiritual side is essential.
another aspect is the education of the girls. in imam hatip schools, there is segregation and hence families like to send their daughters to these schools. in the academic years since 1990, girl students are at least 40 percent of total students. it is a paradox since the girls can never become imams and hatips. most of the girls from imam hatip schools move on to secular professions but the increasing use of head scarves shows the influence that they carry with them.
the graduates from imam hatip schools carry the messages ingrained therein into their career and life. there are many association of past students. which provide for social and political mobilization. they have publishing houses which routinely highlight the role of imam hatip schools and students. they are supposed to be in vanguard against social evils. the popular acceptance of these students leads to political power in the hands of the political parties on the same wavelength.
social pressure is exercised in subtle ways and people are intimidated through quiet repression on the streets. even the judicial process is used to coerce the detractors. the aim is bluntly stated as “in order for them (the elitists) not to pose a threat to islamic regime“ (bilal erdogen). in the secular schools also eleven hours out of weekly quota of forty hours of study are assigned to religious learning.
turning back on the western culture takes peculiar paths. the use of scarves by women is just one of the manifestation. the laughter of a young woman, how much beer a young man drinks, who shares a house with whom and what kind of toilet they use (whether traditional or modern), all are under surveillance. (AKP politicians have destroyed as many modern toilets as modern sculptures.)
[the basic idea for this essay was taken from chapter “the politics of religious education in turkey“ by yusuf sarfati, from the book “religion, education and governance in the middle east“ edited by sai felicia krishna-hensel (ashgate publishers). it was reinforced by other readings. (and of course some reflections of own)].