ISTANBUL — With President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans for greater powers firmly on track, Turkey’s government has set about shaping the country’s future outside the halls of parliament.
Last month, as parliamentarians brawled over — and finally voted for — constitutional changes designed to establish Erdoğan’s long-awaited presidential system, the ministry of education published a draft curriculum for the new school year.
Some of the changes appeared innocuous: Children will be taught about renowned Turkish and Muslim scientists alongside Einstein and Newton, for instance. But secular-leaning Turks were enraged at the plan to remove classes on evolution and the country’s founding fathers, accusing the government of injecting education with its conservative-religious ideology.
Egitim-Sen, a teachers’ union often critical of government policy, worried that the draft curriculum would encourage a “religious and nationalist” mindset, with its emphasis on “Turkishness” and Sunni Islam. Meanwhile, parliamentarians of the largest opposition party CHP condemned what they saw as the “erasure” of the Turkish republic’s founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: The education ministry wanted to cut back on classes covering him and his successor, Ismet Inönü.
The government hit back: The new syllabus would teach Turkey’s history “from the perspective of a national and moral education,” the education ministry declared. The aim was to “protect national values,” added the undersecretary of education, Yusuf Tekin. Moreover, the ministry pledged it would alter its teaching of religion to comply with the European Court of Human Rights, replacing phrases such as “our religion” with the more neutral “Islamic religion.”
The ministry even requested the public’s feedback on its proposal — a rare move in Turkish politics, but unlikely to reassure its critics. Turks who adhere to their country’s constitutional secularism increasingly feel that their lifestyle is under threat from Erdoğan and his pious support base.
Turkey’s secular-religious rift is as old as the republic itself. Until Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, the two sides’ fortunes were reversed: Following Atatürk’s westernizing reforms in the 1920s, the secular elite ruled the country while pious citizens were marginalized.
In the early years of AKP rule, Erdoğan seemed to bridge the divide; both liberals and conservatives lauded his reversal of the headscarf ban in universities, which had barred generations of women from higher education. But on both sides, feelings have hardened since. Rhetoric like ministers declaring a woman’s job to be motherhood, incidents like an incensed mob storming a Radiohead party during Ramadan and government policies such as steep tax hikes for alcohol have contributed to a sense of besiegement among secular Turks.
It’s also not the first time that education has emerged as a battleground. The government’s decision to allow young girls to wear headscarves at school and Erdoğan’s call for mandatory Ottoman-Turkish language classes were met with condemnation from secularists. In 2014, parents took to the streets in protest against education reforms that enrolled as many as 40,000 pupils in state-run religious institutions, called imam-hatip schools, whether they liked it or not.
Imam-hatip schools were established in 1923 to train imams, a measure to impose state control over religion in accordance with Atatürk’s secular vision for Turkey. Today, they teach students the national curriculum in addition to religious classes. Since the AKP’s election success in 2002, enrollment in these schools has surged from 63,000 to one million. Erdoğan, who has expressed the wish to raise a “pious generation,” attended an imam-hatip school himself.
For years, Turkey’s curriculum has remained largely untouched by the growing role of religion in public life. Now, however, secular-minded parents fret over the education ministry’s plan to teach pupils about the concept of jihad and its proposed removal of evolution from science classes.
But a stronger emphasis on Islam isn’t the only change that worries government critics. The ministry has added a class on the coup attempt that rocked Turkey on July 15 last year; the plotters’ failure to overthrow the government has become a highly politicized founding myth to Erdoğan’s vision for his country. In the first week after the summer holidays, pupils were handed a government-issued pamphlet explaining the coup attempt, and shown videos of Erdoğan reading out a poem alongside footage of planes firing onto the streets of Ankara.
“The government is using the story of the coup to present Erdoğan as a hero,” said a history teacher who works at a high school in central Istanbul. (He asked to remain anonymous, given the difficult climate for educators in Turkey: Tens of thousands of academics and teaching staff have been suspended following the coup attempt.)
On his phone, he flipped through images, showing me portraits of “martyrs” — those who died during the coup attempt — pinned up on classroom walls. “It’s politicized history,” he said. But he argued it wasn’t so different from the current curriculum: “It’s always been a history of heroes. Now, it will be more Erdoğan and less Atatürk.”
The new curriculum will likely be imposed on schools from September onward. But the history teacher said he would still give lessons as he saw fit. In the privacy of the classroom, no one could stop him from suggesting “alternative books” to supplement the government’s required reading — a furtive act of protest.
“In Turkey,” he said with a smile, “teaching is political.”