Critics See Secular Education Under Attack in Turkey

    24 December, 2014

    This is the VOA Learning English Education Report.

    Education is a growing issue of dispute in Turkey between those who support religion and government and those who oppose it. Opponents are criticizing Turkey's National Education Council for its proposal to require religious classes in schools. The two sides also dispute a council-supported plan to begin what it calls "values education" for the youngest students.

    In addition, the main opposition group in Turkey, the Republican People's Party has objected to a proposal to teach the Ottoman language in schools. Turks no longer speak the language. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejects the criticism.

    Critics See Secular Education Under Attack in Turkey
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks with students of the Tevfik Ileri Imam Hatip School during its opening ceremony in Ankara, Nov. 18, 2014.

    He says people will learn and teach the language. The National Education Council advises Turkey's Ministry of Education. The council called for required religious classes in high schools to be changed from one to two hours weekly and extended to all ages.

    Cengiz Aktar writes about politics for the newspaper Zaman Today, and teaches at Suleyman Sah University. He says the reforms fit well with president Erdogan's goals.

    "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.

    Religious schools in Turkey are known as imam hatips. The number of these schools shortly increased during Mr. Erdogan's leadership as prime minister. In 2004, 65,000 children attended them. Now that number is more than  one million.

    The schools provide 13 hours weekly of religious training. Boys and girls are separated in the schools. In recent years, many non-religious schools have become imam hatips. A mother said many times parents receive no warning of such change.

    The changes have led to protest in Istanbul. Mr. Erdogan argues that religious education offers an answer for social problems children face, including illegal drugs and racism.

    Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate governs Islam in the country. A top official with the agency says that the policy of a religiously neutral government is weakening religious life in Turkish society.

    Istar Gozaydin is an expert on religion and the state at Dogus University in Istanbul. She says the government is changing Turkish society.

    "The Presidency of Religious Affairs is being more active in, for example, hospitals, women's shelters. So apparently a more conservative society is being tried to be constructed. However, there is not much respect for the freedom from religion," Gozaydin said.

    And that's the VOA Learning English Education Report. I'm Jonathan Evans.