Turkey’s atheist community recently joined forces with the country’s religious minorities to protest against compulsory religious education in schools, which are meted out to students as young as 5 years. The Alevis, who constitute the second-largest religious community in Turkey with as many as 15 million followers, were initially a part of the Sunni Muslim population until they decided to break away and form their own sect. Their religious practice and philosophy are comprised of a mix of Sufism, Shia Islam and Anatolian folk traditions that they perform in structures known as cemevis, not mosques.
“This is a forced course about the Sunni sect,” said Ali Kenanoglu, chairman of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Cultural Association.
Even though Jews and Christians are exempt from compulsory Islamic lessons on the basis of Turkey recognizing them as religious minorities, agnostics, atheists and Alevis are compelled to attend these classes because they are still unrecognized and thereby belong to the country’s Sunni Muslim population.
Despite Turkey officially being a secular republic, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed the post of prime minister after Justice and Development Party’s electoral victory in 2003, the government has consistently implemented policies that critics believe are designed towards transforming the country into a more conservative Islamic society. Currently, Erdogan serves as president, which is supposed to be a nonpartisan post and his former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu serves as prime minister.
Over the years, state-sponsored public education has emerged as a symbol of the tug of war between Turkey’s secular past and religious future. On February 13, atheists and religious minorities called for a one-day school boycott to protest the introduction of compulsory religious lessons in primary schools. Police reacted to the protest by cracking down on demonstrators in different cities across the country, using water cannons and pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Security personnel went on to detain activists and file charges against them for insulting President Erdogan’s authority.
“This is a clear application of the police-state and dictatorial regime,” Kenanoglu said. “But these anti-democratic applications can’t change the truth. This will not make us fear, but work even more.”
Additionally, the boycott was meant to protest against Turkey’s expansion of religious secondary schools, also known as Imam Hatip institutions. Originally set up to train state-employed imams, these schools have now started to grow rapidly ever since the conservative Justice and Development Party came to power more than a decade ago. Admission to Imam Hatip institutions has soared from 65,000 students to approximately 1 million, said Erdogan in a speech at the launch of one such institution in Ankara. What is worse is the Education Ministry’s policy of transforming non-religious high schools into religious Imam Hatip institutions, which has left several students with little option but to seek admission in religious institutions.
In September last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg decided against Turkey’s forceful implementation of religious education on students. Yet, Erdogan decided to move forward with his plans defiantly. On February 17, the court once again rejected an appeal by the country, upholding its earlier decision that compulsory religious classes in secondary schools are in fact a violation of the right to education. The recent decision came without any further statement, which implies it is now final.
“This is an incorrect ruling and there is no similar example in the West,” Erdogan said in a speech immediately after the court decision. “The mandatory physics classes, the mandatory chemistry classes are not sources of debate anywhere around the world. But everybody talks about the religious courses.”
Those analyzing the government’s radical policies believe such expansion of religious schools is nothing but an experiment of social engineering.
“We wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Justice and Development Party is using our children for its own ideology,” said Kamuran Karaca, president of the left-wing Egitim Sen teachers union, which helped organize the recent boycott.
According to Karaca, the government is setting up twice as many Imam Hatip institutions as secular schools.
“This is a political project for creating a religious generation,” he said. “They are forcing students to learn Arabic, the Quran and its interpretation in Sunni Islam.”
The result of such policies is that more families are beginning to find fewer options for their school-going children apart from religious institutions. Cem Sarikaya, a 15-year-old student from Eyup in Istanbul, said he did not have enough marks to seek admission in a non-religious school. Yet, he was adamant against a religious education and so he decided to enroll in a school 200 miles away from his own city, in Eskisehir in the heart of Anatolia.
“All the schools in our district Eyup have been transformed into Imam Hatips,” said his mother, Hulya Sarikaya, a 40-year-old who earns her living as a textile worker. “There are no normal schools left here,” she said. “So we are either forced to send our child to Imam Hatips, or to schools far away.”
And now, Sarikaya’s parents have realized that sending their son away to a non-religious school was not enough.
“We don’t want our child to get a mandatory religion class,” said his father, 41-year-old Selami Sarikaya, who is an auto mechanic. “But now, in his high school in Eskisehir, we learned that he was forced to choose all religious electives. He has a total of four religion classes now.”
The couple decided to pull out their son from the state-sponsored school and have him admitted to a private school instead, where his fees are exorbitantly high at 4,000 Turkish Lira or $1,630. Sarikaya’s parents believe the increased expense is the price they have to pay for wanting to hold on to their Alevi values and principles.
“We don’t consider ourselves religious — we come from an Alevi family background but we identify ourselves as atheists,” said Selami Sarikaya. “We don’t like this situation at all. We want these classes to be optional — the ones who want to take it can take it, but nobody should be forced.”
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