Pictured: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits a religious "imam hatip" high school, on April 2, 2018. (Image source: aHBR video screenshot)
Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is set to receive an additional two billion liras (around $350 million), boosting its budget from last year's 8.3 billion liras ($1.5 billion) to 10.4 billion ($1.8 billion) liras for 2019, according to the newspaper Cumhuriyet. This increase in budget surpasses that of 29 other major state institutions, including the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs.
The Diyanet, the state body regulating the role of Islam in Turkey, apparently has, as one of its main missions, transforming the country's education system. It is now fully engaged in shaping school curricula.
After the minimum age for Quran studies in Turkey was abolished in 2011, a project named "Pre-school religious education through Quran classes," implemented by the Diyanet, was piloted in ten cities across the country in 2013. The project teaches the Quran and "basic Islamic information" to children between the ages of four and six. In 2015, the Diyanet decided to expand to program to "all places where physical conditions are suitable." Since then, the number of "pre-school Koran classes" has continued to rise. It has increased to 150,000 students in five years.
In 2016, Turkey's Education Ministry and the Diyanet signed a "protocol of cooperation in education," which provided all Diyanet publications -- as well as radio and TV broadcasts -- to Turkey's Educational Informatics Network (EBA) to be "turned into course contents and materials."
In addition, in every field under the purview of the Education Ministry, the Diyanet will also have equal decision-making authority, according to a 2017 regulation by the Finance Ministry. That cooperation between the two institutions, as "equal partners in decision-making," has been rapidly expanding. One joint endeavor is the "hafiz training project," which aims to "raise children with religious discipline." Middle-school students at religious vocational schools, named "imam hatip" schools, are now being trained to memorize the entire Quran.
This project is not just the first mosque-based educational program in Turkey; participants who succeed in Quran fluency -- regardless of their secular academic performance -- graduate to upper grades.
According to Feray Aytekin Aydoğan, president of the Education Union:
"That children -- from the age of nine -- are handed over to people who are affiliated with the Diyanet and who are not educators is a violation of children's rights... This hafiz education is unlawful... The students who go to mosques for this training will be away from schools and this is a crime and a violation of their rights."
Imam hatip schools, to educate children for careers as imams and preachers, were opened for the first time in Turkey in 1924. However, ever since the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, government authorities have appeared to give these schools precedence over other types of schools, and pour money into them in an apparent attempt to reshape Turkish educational system. Today, the curricula of imam hatip schools contain Islamic courses as well as other courses, but the graduates can study at all departments at universities.
The Education Ministry has also, through a 2017 regulation, lowered the minimum population requirement for places where imam hatip schools are allowed to open from 50,000 to 5,000, paving the way for an imam hatip high school "in every neighborhood" in Turkey.
In addition, the Turkish government has green-lighted the re-establishment of madrassas, Islamic theological schools.
The first madrassas in Anatolia were established by Seljuk Turks, who invaded and captured the area in the eleventh century, to offer instruction in the field of Islamic jurisprudence (fikih) on Sunni Islam. Ottomans embraced the madrassa tradition in the fourteenth century and strengthened them as their top educational institutions.
According to professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a scholar of Islam and a 2014 presidential candidate, "The construction of a mosque and alongside it a madrasa [became] a tradition in places conquered by the Ottomans, an integral part of their policy of conquest."
Although madrassas were abolished in Turkey in 1924, several "unofficial" ones are still operating across the country.
On September 15, Ali Erbaş, head of the Diyanet, visited the president of Eren University in Bitlis and requested that universities and madrassas "benefit" from one another. In 2016, Mehmet Görmez, then head of the Diyanet, called on the government to legalize madrassas again. "The madrassa tradition has weakened in time," he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed, saying:
"When the republic closed down the madrassas, it created a greater [societal] void... Imam hatip schools and divinity departments [at universities] are significant, but they have not yet reached the level of knowledge of the madrassa tradition."
The Diyanet also recently stated that mosques are not only places of worship but also "schools." Addressing religious authorities at a conference in Edirne on September 22, Erbaş said:
"The struggle between the haqq and batil ["truth" and "falsehood" in Arabic] will continue until doomsday. Is today's darkness and ignorance any less than those of yesterday?... This issue will not end; it will continue. And who will do the work on behalf of the Prophet? We will, you will and all of us will. Each mosque should also be a school. Those who come to the mosque, and those who don't, as well as the people in your neighborhoods, are all your students."
The Diyanet has also increased activities at student dormitories. In 2016, for instance, it piloted the "project for spiritual guidance." This year alone, 559 "spiritual guides" have been appointed by the Diyanet in dormitories across Turkey. Among the duties of the spiritual guides are "recommending articles and books to students, conducting polls and organizing symposia."
In an interview with the Turkish daily, Birgun, in September, İlknur Bahadır Kaya, chairman of the Parents' Association, railed against this situation:
"When we talk about the religionizing of the education system, we are not only talking about the increase in the number of imam hatip schools. There are religious organizations and communities that are allowed in schools with no supervision at all. They pump their own ideologies on children through classes in 'values education' or seminars. We know that they use one-sided language that demonizes those who are different. We observe that the students who are exposed to such curricula consider those who think differently to be their 'enemies.'
"We also see that poor families and families with many children enroll their children at the dormitories run by these religious organizations and foundations. ... It is impossible to understand that those who don't have the slightest problem with what is going on inside these dormitories [such as the rape of children by their teachers] have problems with girls and boys sitting side by side or holding hands at mixed schools. That is why we are worried about the future of our country. When one looks at countries such as Afghanistan, where similar steps were taken, one can see where this process leads to."
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.