Islam, Ottoman, Erdogan: New Core Of Turkey's Education System

Turkish schools are taking steps to cultivate a 'pious generation' by rewriting history and placing a greater emphasis on religion.

School comings and goings in Istanbul
School comings and goings in Istanbul
Luisa Seeling

ISTANBUL — Forget about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Starting this year, Turkish students will instead be taught that human beings were created by God. They'll also learn about jihad, an announcement that triggered an outcry in secular circles.

To be sure, Turkish Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz rushed to assure everyone that students would not learn about religious wars. The true meaning of the word "jihad," he contends, is "love of country." The secular opposition party CHP has responded that the government is instilling in "children's brains the same attitude that turned the Middle East into a bloodbath."

The school year in Turkey began in mid-September, bringing the conservative government's latest education reforms into effect. And while Yilmaz has downplayed the changes as a "simplification of the learning material," his critics maintain that the curriculum revision is radical. For them, the quarrel over educational content and textbooks is more than a struggle for the correct educational program. It is a fight for the direction of the republic: a question of whether children will continue to be raised in the spirit of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or shaped instead into the "pious generation" that Turkey's current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to cultivate.

Some of the anger is directed against a reform aimed at changing access for further schooling after eighth grade. The entrance exam that was in use until recently was suddenly abolished, replaced by a new test as well as a district system that takes home addresses more into account when assigning students to schools. That, critics say, will benefit the so-called Imam Hatip schools, whose original purpose was to educate clerics.

The number of such schools has skyrocketed in recent years. Of the approximately 1,150 that exist nationwide, more than 900 were established after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government in 2002. The number of students enrolled in Hatip schools surged as well, from 100,000 to 1.15 million.

The reforms are justified, the education ministry claims, by the unreasonable pressure on students to get high marks. But critics like Ayfer Kocak, 42, a math teacher and the Istanbul district chair of the leftist education union Eğitim Sen, aren't buying the argument. Getting into prestigious high schools, she claims, is still not an option for many children. These students are split up among different types of schools, increasingly religious or private institutions, which stand to benefit from the reform.

"The basic idea is right: To have good schools right in the residential district," says Kocak. "But they should open more good public high schools."

Custodians of Islam

Education policy was a site of cultural trench warfare even before the AKP came to power. After the 1980 coup d'etat, the military enacted its concept of "Turkish-Islamic synthesis." The idea was to tame the subversive force of religion by merging it with nationalist elements. The Islamist movement, which later gave rise to the AKP, also took shape at that time.

Under the AKP, the education issue has become even more divisive. For years, the party lobbied to ease the headscarf ban at universities and schools — a frontal assault on the foundations of the republic in the eyes of the secular camp. A study by Impact-se, an Israeli organization, found that content taught at Turkish schools began to change in earnest after 2012. "The Turks are represented as custodians of Islam," the authors wrote.

The curriculum, the study found, emphasizes the compatibility of Islam and democracy, of religion and science. And it questions the once prevailing opinion of secular scholars that the Ottoman Empire and Turkey lagged behind technologically because of Islam. "The curriculum depicts Turkish-Islamic civilization in relation to the Western world, and in some cases as superior," the Impact-se researchers wrote. The year 2012 was also when the AKP government introduced the controversial 4+4+4 system, which permits students to attend an Imam Hatip school as early as fourth grade.

From above, at school in Istanbul — Photo: ccarlstead

The failed coup attempt last year and the constitutional referendum this year in which a narrow majority voted for a presidential system accelerated the educational reform process. Thousands of educators have been fired since the thwarted putsch. Meanwhile, Education Minister Yilmaz introduced new syllabi that limit both the natural sciences and the arts. Some topics, like evolution, were axed completely.

Darwin's teaching, Yilmaz explained, overwhelms students who should instead concern themselves more with values and religion in the classroom. But critics call the curriculum a clear extension of the AKP's political beliefs, and lament the emphasis it places on religious issues and the attempted coup at the expense of the natural sciences and Kemalism (Atatürkism), the republic's founding ideology.

For Esra Aksu, 29, the reforms are an "absolutely negative development." The designer has no children, but lives with her 15-year-old brother, who attends a renowned vocational school in Istanbul. "Rational thinking has been put aside," she says. "Of course, children should learn something about Ottoman history. But isn't it more important that they learn about who founded the state?"

President Erdogan apparently takes the opposite view. In May, he lamented in a speech that the Turkish people have been taught "a pathetic past." With the new curriculum, he said, the textbooks tell a "glorious and illustrious history." They portray the Ottomans in glowing terms while glossing over their downfall.

Lessons in obedience

The curriculum takes a similar approach to more recent events such as the coup attempt in 2016 have also come into focus. While the events of June 2016 are still shrouded in mystery, textbooks celebrate the heroic popular victory over the plotters. And they clearly identify an enemy: the Gulen Movement, which is called a terrorist organization and the root of all evil. The classification of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 also conforms to the government's belief that it was a conspiracy devised by internal and foreign powers.

Labor union member Ayfer Kocak sees another problem: The new books propagate a conservative image of women. They picture veiled women who take care of their children and homes, and describe obedience as a religious virtue. "In their "religious culture" course, the man is defined as the boss," she says. "The woman is made to show respect and obedience."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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