Yes to ‘Ottoman,’ no to compulsory religion

Yes to ‘Ottoman,’ no to compulsory religion

Turkey just hosted a controversial “National Education Council.” This is a body that many educators take part in, which makes suggestions to the Education Ministry about future strategies in the national education system. As expected, the council was bitterly contested because, as expected, both its defenders and opponents had ideology in mind rather than factual matters of education.

When I read the list of “suggestions” by the council to the ministry, the first thing I looked for was whether there was anything about the promotion of “critical thinking,” because Turkish students - and the society at large - painfully lack that key talent. However, not too surprisingly, there was nothing about critical thinking included.

You may perhaps wonder whether this is yet another piece of evidence of Turkey drifting away from its open-minded, secular past toward dogmatic Islamism. However, the “old Turkey” before the AKP was not interested in critical thinking either. It simply had a secular dogma (i.e. Kemalism) to teach to future generations. Now, apparently, the habit of teaching dogmas continues, with only one dogma replacing another. While Kemalist dictums in the education system gradually disappear, new Islamic ones gradually appear. Therefore, the problem with the “New Turkey” is that it is hardly even “new.”

But what kind of dogma I am speaking about? The inclusion of “Ottoman language classes” into high schools?

No, not at all. In fact, that is one of the positive steps, in my view, in the list of suggestions. Because the “Ottoman language” is not a dogma; it is the very language that was written and spoken in this country until 80 years ago. The Kemalist “language revolution” of the 1930s aimed to create a national tabula rasa, but only culturally impoverished the nation by cutting it from its centuries-old cultural accumulation. Therefore, Turkish children would be luckier today if they gain the capacity to understand what their grandfathers wrote and spoke. I am all for that.

The dogmatism that I criticize is not about the inclusion of the “Ottoman language,” but the suggested introduction of “compulsory religion classes” to even to the very first three grades. This means that children as young as six, seven or eight years old will get the obligatory “religious culture classes,” which are already very controversial. While the government claims that these classes teach “about all religions,” everyone knows that they are basically about Sunni Islam. No wonder the European Court of Human Rights just punished Turkey over these classes, ruling that they amount to discrimination against the Alevi minority. The step that should be taken in schools is at least to lift the “compulsory” status of the classes, but the ministry is preparing to take them to new heights.

It is notable that even Education Minister Nabi Avcı has even come out against the inclusion of religion classes in the first three grades. This shows that there are still reasonable minds in the government, but obviously they are countered by the not-so-reasonable ones.

Another scandal in the council was its recommendation to lift “alcoholic cocktail preparation” classes from tourism schools. These classes could have been turned into elective courses, if some religious students simply don’t want to touch alcohol, which is their right. But their total exclusion signals something deeply disturbing about “New Turkey”: Its masters, like the masters of the “old Turkey,” have an urge to push their ideological/cultural stamp on the nation, rather than build an open and pluralistic society.