Can religious courses stop Islamist radicalism?

Can religious courses stop Islamist radicalism?

A recent European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling has highlighted once again the issue of compulsory religious classes in the Turkish education system.

The ECHR examined the case in light of the curriculum of compulsory religion and ethics classes, as well as its changes, including consideration of the various beliefs existing in Turkey including the Alevi faith.
In its ruling, the court observed in particular that in the field of religious instruction, Turkey’s education system was still inadequately equipped to ensure respect for parents’ convictions.

Compulsory religious classes have long been a major complaint of the Alevis in Turkey, since the classes mainly teach the Sunni way of belief in Islam; Alevism, a very liberal interpretation of Islam that has millions of followers, has very little place in the curriculum. Alevis have therefore long fought against the content of the classes, which are included as a separate article in the Constitution, both politically and in the courts.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu yesterday said the government would wait for the detailed justification of the ECHR ruling, while defending the mandatory classes.

“Even an atheist should have religious knowledge,” Davutoğlu said. “It is necessary for an atheist to have knowledge of religious culture, just like I know about Marxism despite not being a Marxist.”

While this first part may be good material for a political magazine story, the second part of Davutoğlu’s remarks on the issue was more interesting:

“This [having mandatory religious courses] is a must for Turkey, if you look at developments surrounding the country,” he said. “If a solid religious education is not given [to children] through institutions, there will be no way to control the unorganized and unhealthy religious information that is a source of the radicalization trend around us.”

So, according to Davutoğlu, the classes are an important tool to prevent the growth of Islamist radicalization. If so, how is it possible that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Turks, who have all had mandatory religious courses in Turkish schools, are fighting on the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Why did those classes not help them learn about the “real Islam” and keep them away from joining a gang of murderers that does not hesitate to behead people in the name of Islam? Why did they not reject becoming one of the criminals who have been holding 49 employees of the Turkish consulate in Mosul, including Consul General Öztürk Yılmaz and two babies, hostage for 100 days?

Leaving the absurdity of the classes being a tool against radicalism aside, if the mandatory classes in schools are aimed at giving general information about faith and religion as Davutoğlu said - of course favoring Islam a little in a country with a majority Muslim population - there would not be much of a problem. During the fundamental education period, there is nothing wrong about teaching the basics of religion, just as students learn about mathematics, science, history or philosophy.

However, the curriculum in Turkey, despite the changes made in 2007 when the country lost its first case in the ECHR regarding the mandatory religious classes, is nothing like “religion and ethics education” as its name suggests.  It only teaches the Sunni way of practicing religion, and students are required to memorize many surahs, chapters of the Quran, often performing the namaz in classes to get a passing grade. Many teachers prefer to simply omit subjects in the curriculum other than the Sunni way.

Even if they did not, it would not mean much anyway, since the curriculum itself is also problematic. The classes start in the fourth year of 12 years of mandatory education, and it is not until the sixth grade that they include information about religions other than Islam. The students also have to wait until the seventh grade to hear about different ways within Islam, such as Sufism.

In the high school period, students learn about Alevism only in the final year, in a single subject: “Esoteric interpretations of Islam.” Of the total 28 subjects in four years of religious classes in high school, only four include different religions. So the classes are far from meeting the basic needs of an Alevi, or Mevlevi, or even Shiite student.

“Turkey has to remedy the situation without delay, in particular by introducing a system whereby pupils could be exempted from religion and ethics classes without their parents having to disclose their own religious or philosophical convictions,” the ECHR stated in its ruling.

Forcing a religion or a political view on children is not acceptable even when it is done by parents, but doing this through state institutions is a clear violation of the most basic rights. The government should stop sugarcoating it as a “tool to fight radicalism” and stop the practice immediately.