Secularists and a rising middle class of pious Muslims in Turkey are divided over the role of religion in public life.
Secularists: Government plan favours Islamic schools in Turkey
ISTANBUL // Forget the headscarf issue, human rights or the Kurdish problem. Nothing gets the blood of Turkish lawmakers boiling like a row over children's education.
Committee meetings on a government bill to overhaul Turkey's education system last week produced a fist-fight among participants and a record-breaking filibuster by an opposition politician.
Education is a hot-button ideological issue in Turkey, where secularists and a rising middle class of pious Muslims, represented by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, are sharply divided over the role of religion in public life. Secular critics say the government plan to reform the education system will increase the influence of Islamic schools.
Discussions in the education committee of parliament in Ankara turned violent on Thursday after lawmakers of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the country's biggest opposition party, accused Mr Erdogan's Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of trying to rush the bill through parliament. The committee meeting was suspended for several hours.
The fight followed a filibuster by a CHP lawmaker, Engin Ozkoc, who held the floor for more than 12 hours earlier in the week. Mr Ozkoc said experts, non-governmental organisations and even some members of the governing party had strong reservations about the education bill. But the Erdogan government had decided not to listen. "So for 12 hours, I tried to be the voice of those people," Mr Ozkan told the Turkish news agency Anadolu.
The government says the current system of eight years of compulsory basic education followed by four optional years of high school fails to prepare children adequately for the labour market. Mr Erdogan wants to introduce a new scheme, known as "4+4+4" or "relay education" to lengthen compulsory school education to 12 years. The plan foresees four years of primary education, followed by four years of middle school that can take the form of vocational schools, and four years of high school.
Batuhan Aydagul, coordinator of the Education Reform Initiative at Istanbul's Sabanci University, said the present system was in need of repair, but the fact that the government did not allow time for a broad debate and consensus-building raised doubts. He said the new plan, scheduled to be implemented later this year, could lead to serious disruption and did not address the most serious problems in education, which he described as a lack of qualified teachers and inequalities among schools.
"The way the government presented this reform made many people think that it is totally driven by politics," Mr Aydagul told The National on Thursday. He said the government was right "to a certain extent" to tackle problems of the present, military-inspired system. "But there is an impression that the whole system is being sacrificed for rather political motives."
The current system is a by-product of the so-called "soft coup" of February 28, 1998, when the secular military began a successful campaign to push an Islamist-led government from power, in a move known as the "February 28 process" in Turkish political parlance.
To minimise a perceived Islamist influence on children, the generals forced the government to implement a principle of eight years of basic education without the possibility of changing to a vocational school. That meant special state-run schools created to educate Islamic clergy, known as Imam Hatip schools, were no longer available as middle schools, only as high schools. The military stepped in because the schools had become popular among pious families, even if they did not want their children to join the clergy.
Mr Erdogan, who has done much to roll back the generals' influence in recent years and who is himself an Imam Hatip graduate, made it clear in a speech last week that his government's reform scheme is not only intended to improve education, but also to overcome the legacy of the military's intervention of 1998.
"Unfortunately, the mentality of the architects of February 28 has caused a disaster for the young and the education system," Mr Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Tuesday, according to a copy of the speech posted on the AKP's website. "With relay education, the last traces of February 28 will be wiped out."
Today, about 240,000 of the roughly four million high school students in Turkey attend Imam Hatip schools. Under a reform introduced three years ago, Imam Hatip students and other graduates of vocational high schools have the same chance to get into university as graduates from regular high schools.
Mr Erdogan's critics are just as passionate about the issue as the prime minister. Egitim-Sen, a teacher's trade union, said Mr Erdogan's real intention was not to provide children with a better education.
"The real aim is to open the way for Imam Hatip schools, which the AKP has always regarded as its own back yard," the union said in a statement on its website. Egitim-Sen also referred to a recent statement by Mr Erdogan, in which he said he wanted to raise "a pious generation". That sentence alone was enough "to understand the real aim behind the bill", the union said.
The government says it is open to suggestions to improve the bill. It has already changed the original draft in response to warnings that conservative families may take their daughters from school after only four years. The bill now says children can join distance learning programmes after eight years of school, instead of after four years as stated in the earlier draft.