Turkey: Toward a more religious, less secular social order?

Turkey: Toward a more religious, less secular social order?

On April 16, the Turkish public voted in favor of a set of comprehensive constitutional amendments that overhaul the governance system into an executive-presidency model, a move considered to be the beginning of a new era in Turkey. In line with amendments, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected as the chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in May but we have to wait until the 2019 elections - if not earlier - to discern the implementation of the amended constitution.  

However, some steps taken by the government in recent weeks and months particularly in the education and social fields signal more changes ahead about the public life in Turkey in this very new era. 

A change in the curriculum that has left evolution out and added the concept of “jihad” as part of Islamic law in books was interpreted as yet another major blow on the quality of education in Turkey, with concerns that it would cause a further drift from secularism. 

The AKP’s education policies have long been established in favor of promoting and expanding vocational religious schools accompanied with increasing the hours of compulsory and selective religious courses almost at all grades. The introduction of the 4+4+4 model to the Turkish education system paved the way for the government to increase the number of students enrolled in vocational religious schools up to one million.    

Concerns are growing on the basis that the education system skips academic and scientific necessities in favor of ideological priorities heavily determined by the AKP government. This kind of an educational preference would surely not help breed democratic culture, respect to the other and tolerance to dissident ideas among the youth. 

Interventions against educations are not limited, however. Some religious-conservative foundations are increasingly becoming more influential in all aspects of education. A report published by the daily Cumhuriyet on Aug. 2 revealed that the Education Ministry allowed the Ensar Foundation to organize courses in nearly 1,000 public education centers under a recently signed protocol.
This religious foundation had hit the headlines of newspapers last year after a teacher working in one of its branches in the Central Anatolian province of Karaman was convicted of sexually abusing 10 schoolboys aged 10 to 12 from 2012 and 2015. 

It should also be noted that the Ensar Foundation has very strong links with the AKP. It receives strong support from Erdoğan who has recently vowed for religious generations in his address at the general convention of the Ensar Foundation in Istanbul.

A similar protocol was signed between the Family and Social Policies Ministry and the Muradiye Foundation for the latter to enjoy financial support from the ministry for 31 educational centers under the title of “Children House” located in Ankara. This foundation is believed to follow the principles of the Naqshbandi order, a Sunni religious community.  

Among other foundations, the Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey (TÜRGEV), a charity nongovernmental organization that has Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan and his daughter Esra Albayrak as board members needs particular attention. Especially, its influence in shaping higher education in Turkey cannot be underestimated. TÜRGEV is also in deep cooperation with the Ensar Foundation. 

One other development that flared up discussions on secularism was a draft law allowing muftis and civil servants of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to register and perform marriages. Those who are against the draft argue this move will undermine secularism and will pave the way for child marriages while the supporters recall that the changes will not introduce amendments on the marriage criteria. 

One of the most important effects of this change would be the introduction of a religious body in the implementation of the civil code that could successfully maintain an order in the making of social life in Turkey. 

Not necessarily related with all aforementioned observations, complaints on interventions on lifestyles, on the way women dress and etc. are tending to increase. Unfortunately, this is not only a product of poor education but also of polarization within the society. 

Having said all, a special clause needs to be devoted to the change at the Diyanet as the top cleric Mehmet Görmez, who was running one of the largest institutions of Turkey, has announced his retirement. It’s believed that Görmez and Erdoğan were in disagreement over a score of issues concerning religious decisions because of different interpretations of Islam. It’s also believed that Görmez’s successor will be a figure more loyal to the president and more cooperative. 

All these perhaps are building stones of the vision frequently voiced by Erdoğan on Turkey’s future. It will be of vital importance to observe the reaction of the Turkish public opinion in the elections against this vision that recedes secularism in both educational and social order.