Islamic schools in modern Turkey

Islamic schools in modern Turkey

William Armstrong -
Islamic schools in modern Turkey “Islamic Schools in Modern Turkey: Faith, Politics, and Education” by İren Özgür (Cambridge University Press, 2012, $95, pp 240)

There are few debates more fraught with secular-religious rancor in modern Turkey than the one over the national education system. The religious Imam-Hatip state high schools are at the center of this polemic, and anyone hoping to take a close and objective look at them is stepping onto a minefield. İren Özgür admits that she doesn’t expect the arguments in this book to be well-received by either “Islamists or secularists who are single-mindedly committed to their own political agendas,” which is probably true, but this is nevertheless still a fascinating study. Despite all the passion that the subject can arouse, Özgür remains admirably cool-headed and even-handed throughout.

Like so many state institutions in Turkey, Imam-Hatip high schools were initially established to further the top-down secular goals of the early republic, but have undergone a gradual redefinition ever since. They were first opened in 1924, with the specific purpose of monopolizing religious education in the training of prayer leaders (imams) and preachers (hatips). Their fortunes waxed and waned during the single party period and in the years immediately afterwards, but perhaps the most significant reform to affect them didn’t come until 1973 and the “Basic Law on National Education.” Among other things, the law included a provision that allowed Imam-Hatip schools to begin functioning as general high schools, not simply as schools for the training of religious functionaries, and thereafter followed an expansion of the Imam-Hatip system and an increase in the level of secular subjects taught in them, (today the Imam-Hatip curriculum is around 40 percent religious, 60 percent secular). The expansion was accelerated after the 1980 military coup, which was led by generals who believed that ignorance about religion had made Turkish youth susceptible to radical groups of left and right. A “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” was thus promoted by the military authorities, which aimed to utilize Islam as a socially unifying force. This involved the building of more mosques (around 1,500 per year during the 1980s), the opening of Quran courses, and the increased employment of religiously conservative officials to government ministries. It also saw increased support for Imam-Hatip schools, which by the 1990s were performing on a par with general high schools in the university entrance exam. 

However, the 1997 “post-modern” coup that ousted the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan dealt a huge blow to religious state schools. Reforms were passed targeting their influence, including a shift to a mandatory eight years of primary education and the introduction of the “coefficient factor” in the university entrance exam. The former reduced the amount of time any student could spend in an Imam-Hatip school, while the latter handicapped all “vocational” school students and automatically marked down their exam score if they wanted to study in any faculty other than divinity. Enrollment in Imam-Hatip schools dropped, and the level of education offered in them was badly affected, with the most academically promising students heading elsewhere. Nevertheless, the schools have once again flourished since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. This culminated in the “4+4+4” educational reform that was passed by parliament last year, which effectively reversed most of the educational impositions that followed the 1997 coup. Unfortunately however, Özgür is unable to deal with the “4+4+4” changes here, as they were passed shortly after this book was published. An additional chapter examining the contents of the reform, its implications, and its effects, would be very welcome indeed.

One of the things that this book does particularly well is situate the Imam-Hatip schools within the wider network of social, cultural and professional Islamic organizations that have expanded in Turkey over the last 40 years. As Özgür writes, “the Imam-Hatip school community fosters a sense of connectedness and facilitates the formation of social networks. These networks are instrumental in the success of Islamist civil society organizations or political parties that push for agendas of Islamic reform.” Attention tends to focus narrowly on the AKP government for the “Islamization” of Turkey, but the fact is that it is only the latest political expression of a broader, consciously Islamic agenda, which is supported by a large and growing system of interconnected civil society organizations. Imam-Hatip graduate journalist Resul Torun is quoted in the book as saying that Islamist civil society organizations are “the real forces driving the Islamization of society,” and Imam-Hatip high schools are intimately plugged into this network.

The fieldwork involved in the writing of this book must have been extremely difficult, with the circles around the Islamic movement in Turkey notoriously opaque, and AKP members shielding Imam-Hatips from outside inquiries as a matter of policy. Özgür therefore deserves credit for producing such a comprehensive and thorough study. The hard-liners on either side of the debate are unlikely to be convinced, but this is still an important and hugely informative study.

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William Armstrong,