The Turkish government is limiting admission to secular schools in favour of Islamic schools that focus on Qur'anic and religious studies. From among more than a million applicants to secular high schools for the 2013-2014 school year, only 360,000 have been accepted.
"Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using these schools in order to raise a new generation of children that is infused with Islamic values. He is seeking to erase the country's secularist past," says Unsal Yildiz, deputy chairman of Egitim-Sen, an independent trade union representing teachers.
Under the leadership of Erdogan, the Islamist-founded Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., has been attempting to depict Turkey as a model nation and an alternative to the other Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. The image the A.K.P. has been seeking to project to the world is that Turkey is a nation that has successfully married Islam with secularism — a Muslim, yet modern and secular country.
However, ordinary people of Turkey have been noticing a very different sentiment than the one being projected by their government. This has recently become more evident in the educational system. During the last few years, the Erdogan government has shifted educational funding in favor of religious schools (by improving their organizational and material allotments) at the expense of other schools that are struggling even to find full-time teachers.
According to chairman Yildiz, the government is more interested in raising an obedient and religious new generation than an educated one, and that is why religious education has become a priority.
More than a million students took the placement test this year, Yildiz said. "This stands as a proof that all these kids want to continue their education in 'academic high schools.' Despite that, the Ministry of Education allowed only 363,872 students to do that. This new system is forcing more than half of the students to continue their education in vocational high schools [or] Imam Hatips. . . . Such a forced imposition on students cannot be accepted."
Although in a recent statement Education Minister Nabi Avci claimed that families prefer to send their children to religious education rather than to the more secular schools, Yildiz claims that this is not due to their personal choice but due to government policies.
Yildiz backs his claim with facts: In 2012 and 2013, there were a total of 1,141 Imam Hatips (religious schools), of which 42 were closed due to lack of student enrolment. Of the remaining 1,099 schools, 78 never had a student, and 461 were at half-occupancy. With such a lack in those schools, authorities limited enrollment in secular schools, thus forcing students to attend religious schools.
"This is a Muslim country," he said. "Ninety-nine per cent of the population is Muslim. We have a structure [i.e. Turkish society] that comes from history. Due to Turkey's geographical placement, we don't have inventors. Therefore, we need to put our focus on raising strong, well-educated and mid-level technical workers," said Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar.
Since rising to power ten years ago, Erdogan has tried to reshape Turkish society, with an outlook on life inspired by the country's Ottoman past. His government has done many things that promote that way of life, from imprisoning secular generals and journalists to funding blockbuster movies that highlight great Ottoman figures, banning late-night sales of alcohol or the use of lipstick by flight attendants on Turkish Airlines. Now he is attempting to force upon the people a strict Muslim educational system.