Erdogan’s ‘Pious Generation’ and the Closing of the Turkish Mind

Begum Toprak

AFP Photo: Turkish Presidential Press Service

In an address to the theology faculty of Ankara University in November, Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined his vision of “a pious generation” in Turkey, declaring, “God willing, a pious youth and a pious generation will be raised by our hand.” It’s an ambition the Turkish president has been pursuing with all the power at his disposal. Meanwhile, the youth of Turkey fall further and further behind in world education standards.

Bit by bit, the Erdogan regime has been dismantling Turkey’s secular education system. In 2017, for example, it removed Darwin’s theory of evolution from the national high school curriculum. Since then, chapters on evolution and the origin of life have been removed from standard biology textbooks.

At the time, the deputy prime minister (and now the culture minister), Numan Kurtulmus, defended the move, calling Darwinism “old and rotten.” The 2017-18 academic year, he added, would be shaped by “Turkish values” – a term that has less and less to do with the secularism on which modern Turkey was founded.

Of particular concern has been the explosion in the number of students enrolled in Imam Hatip religious schools. By law, these schools must follow the national curriculum, but their core values are deeply rooted in the teachings of the Quran. In 2003, there were 71,000 students enrolled in Imam Hatip high schools. By 2019, it was half a million. Before Erdogan’s AKP party came to power in 2002, there were 450 Imam Hatip high schools; now there are more than 1,500. In 2018, the number of religious high schools exceeded non-religious schools in 61 provinces.

A turning point came in 2012 when a bill was passed extending religious schooling into primary, secondary and even pre-school education. The proliferation of religious schools has since accelerated with alarming speed. Last year, the Dr Kemal Naci Eksi public high school in Istanbul’s Bagcilar district was turned into an Imam Hatip high school overnight with no prior notification given to students or parents – even though Bagcilar already had eight religious high schools.

As a graduate of an Imam Hatip school, Erdogan’s partiality toward these institutions is clear, as illustrated by the funding he has offered them. He spent $11 million on redeveloping his old high school, which has been renamed after him. Only 11 percent of high school students are currently in religious schools, yet they receive nearly a quarter of the entire national high school education budget. In 2019, Imam Hatip high schools received 15 times more funding than the highly competitive “science high schools” (public schools that focus on science subjects).

Despite all the injections of cash, students in religious schools get an inferior education. Last year, only one in seven applicants from Imam Hatip schools scored high enough in the university entrance exam to secure a place.

And female students get the worst deal of all; the teaching in Imam Hatip schools is geared toward producing clerics – a position that Islam does not permit women to hold. Unless they win a place at university, employment prospects for girls graduating from Imam Hatip schools are almost non-existent. Yet the number of girls in Imam Hatip schools has increased tenfold since 2002 and they now outnumber boys.

Changes that favor religious schools have been coming at a fast pace. In the last 17 years, the education system has undergone changes 15 times and the high school entrance exam five times under seven different education ministers. As the director of the Education and Science Workers’ Union, Feray Aytekin Aydoğan, points out, “No student graduated from high school under the same system as when they entered.”

The effect of such instability on students and staff is considerable. Teachers feel overworked and overwhelmed by the constant changes so it is little wonder that the quality of education is at an all-time low. In 2017, the Unicef think tank, Innocenti, ranked Turkey last out of 41 countries for education standards.

In 2003, Turkey took part for the first time in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests the academic skills of 15-year-olds. The year 2015 was a low point: out of 70 countries, Turkey ranked 52nd in science, 49th in mathematics and 50th in reading.Though scores have since improved, Turkish 15-year-olds still lag behind those from other OECD countries. A report published this month by the Social Democracy Foundation found that 86 percent of parents believed their children were not receiving a world-class education and 80 percent believed the Turkish education system did not equip their children for working abroad – which is why record numbers of high school graduates now pursue higher education overseas.

In 2019, 94 percent of graduates from the Deutsche Schule in Istanbul went on to foreign universities. At the well-respected, 136-year-old Istanbul High School (which has produced at least three former prime ministers), more students chose to go abroad than carry on studying in Turkey.

The connection between the rise of religious schools and the diminishing returns in quality education cannot be denied. The Islamization of the Turkish education system is a disturbing fact and it is the root cause of the decline in the quality of education that Turkey provides to its young.

Pious or not, in the last decade Erdogan’s ambition to create a generation steeped in “Turkish values” has succeeded only in producing a generation of under-educated underachievers who are in no way equipped to be pioneers of a Turkish renaissance.

Begüm Toprak is a nom de plume of a Turkish journalist living in Istanbul. In the two years to the end of 2019, 74 journalists were arrested in Turkey, according to the independent international group, the Committee to Protect Journalists.