Rise in imam-hatips shows AKP’s favoritism for religious education

Rise in imam-hatips shows AKP’s favoritism for religious education

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Rise in imam-hatips shows AKP’s favoritism for religious education

'The last three major education reforms will not serve the purpose of quality education so well,’ says Batuhan Aydagül (R), director of Education Reform Initiative. HÜRRİYET photo, Murat ŞAKA

Turkey’s government is engaged in positive discrimination toward religious vocational schools known as imam-hatips, according to Batuhan Aydagül, the head of the Education Reform Initiative (ERG).

The fact that there are 73 percent more imam-hatips over 2010 shows the “political and bureaucratic will and support” behind the schools, he said.

We keep hearing of parents complaining that they are left with no option but to send their children to imam-hatip schools.

I think it’s important to clarify how imam-hatip schools are different from other vocational or Anatolian high schools. The difference is not much in what is taught but whether or not religion courses are compulsory or not. If you attend an imam-hatip school, three of the religious courses you have to take are compulsory, so the number of courses that you can take as electives are less than a general Anatolian high school. 

As such, it is not completely a different religious curriculum. However, these schools, as it is known by the Turkish general public, have a very significant historical meaning. In fact, both the 1997 Compulsory Education Law and the 2012 “4+4+4 School Reform” [converting the eight-year obligatory system into three blocks] are all about imam-hatip high schools. The underlying driving force is to shut them off in the [1997] Compulsory Education Law and to reopen them with the 4+4+4 Law. Since the Justice and Development Party [AKP] came to power in 2002, imam-hatip schools – and now middle schools since 2012 – have been regaining their weight, both in terms of the number of students enrolled but also in terms of the emphasis given by the ministry.

Since 2010-2011, 1,477 general high schools were shut down. Of that, together with the new schools, all numbers have increased. Today for example, we have 854 imam-hatip high schools, whereas in 2010-11, we had 493. The increase of imam-hatip schools is 73 percent. Vocational high schools have increased 23 percent and Anatolian high schools 57 percent. The fact that one school type has increased its numbers 73 percent shows us the political and bureaucratic will and support behind opening imam-hatip schools. Based on these numbers alone, one can easily say there is a positive discrimination applied by the ministry to imam-hatip schools across the country.

Can you tell us how this is taking place?

It has a very decentralized nature. In Turkey provincial directors are responsible for deciding what sort of schools to open and what sort of schools to close down.

So during the transformation to the 4+4+4 system, the local administrations have decided which schools should be normal and which schools should be imam-hatips.

There is no empirical evidence to identify or to talk about this but in many parts of the country, especially in less conservative places, parents often complain about the schools in the neighborhood being transformed into an imam-hatip school. In some neighborhoods across the country, based on news articles, on anecdotal evidence, we know that there were kids who had no choice but to attend imam-hatip schools because that was the only school available in their neighborhood. In the first two years, we know that more imam-hatip schools were opened than the demand for them.

How can officials justify their decision?

Unfortunately, there is no such mechanism for justification; there is no accountability because you can’t really ask them. I mean we could, but there is no accountability mechanism. I believe the fact that ministry’s provincial directors and local authorities did so because they were inspired by the political climate and political support behind this.

Can you confidently say that there is such will on the political level to have more imam-hatip schools?

Definitely. The law itself is purely driven by the will to open up imam-hatip schools. This is neither wrong, nor right. The government has such authority. Our point was that, it is legitimate for the government or Parliament to reopen imam-hatip junior secondary schools. If that’s the case, let’s discuss how we can open these schools without driving the education system into huge turmoil.

I wish the government would engage in a consultative process with the stakeholders and really find a different and an alternate way, which will create less damage to the education system.

What is the damage you’re talking about?

We did a survey with students who studying in the fifth year under the old education system and who are studying in the fifth year under the new system. Our findings showed us that students’ academic performances declined and that conditions in schools had deteriorated. Due to the quick implementation [of the new law], there were serious negative implications in the education system. We hope that in the second and third years this will diminish.

But the damage has been done to the environment of dialogue that we need in education policy. This government had the power and leverage to bring people around the table and say, look, we want to have imam-hatip schools, let’s discuss altogether how we can have an educational system that is acceptable to all.

Instead, it was “We want to open it,” “we will open it” and “we’ve opened it.”
This also, I think, creates an unjustified negative feeling against imam-hatip schools.

One point you’re making is that parents or locals should have choices. There are some choices which are imposed on them. That’s the main objection you have, it seems.

I’m against conventional religion teaching in the schools within the week. That is because international human rights conventions, common sense and the Turkish experience supports my argument. If you have elective courses, forget about compulsory, in some parts of the country, this could turn into peer pressure.

If we have more imam-hatip schools, what is the possible consequences for the upcoming generations?

Regardless of the religious beliefs of students, children should all be equipped with robust critical thinking skills and that requires being able to question dogma, wherever it comes from; that really requires you to assess any information when you are faced with it. When you have good critical thinking skills, if you are taught to think both analytically and critically, then the level of religious information and knowledge you will acquire should not be any threat to anybody because as long as a graduate of high school and future active citizen has accumulated these skills and knows how to live in a pluralistic society and is not scared of what he or she doesn’t know but rather has the courage and the willingness to know things, if they are aware of their rights, but also of others’ rights, and if they can actually rise to protect others’ rights as much as theirs, then the amount of religious beliefs you carry shouldn’t worry anybody in this country. As to whether this is happening in Turkey and whether we are successfully educated active citizens, no, this is not happening. The reason it’s not happening is that we are not providing a really good quality education to students. Forget about critical thinking, 40 percent of 15-year-olds in Turkey can’t do division and multiplication.

In the long run, my biggest worry is that if we have people who have been indoctrinated or, say, people with a strong religious background – and unless they have strong analytical critical thinking skills – this might backfire on the nation because these people would be at risk of becoming more fundamentalist than progressive. Out of fundamentalists, nobody will gain in this country – above all the AKP because the Turkey that the AKP envisions in 2023 requires this country’s citizens to be active participants in the labor force, active participants in social life and active participants in democracy. For that you have to commucative skills, for that you need analytical skills, for that you have to be able to question, ask questions and so on. Unfortunately, the emphasis in 2011 has been on the part of more religious and moral education. 

If you are really equipped with a lot of religious information but miss the other important part, then you are really risking the country’s future.

And you see this risk, basically.

I see this because they are neglecting to provide quality education. I think it has to do with the other priorities of the government. So the last three major education reforms will not serve the purpose of quality education so well. 4+4+4 will not have any direct positive implications on providing quality education for all. Closing dershanes [private tutoring classes] will not have a positive implication in the near future.

I don’t see this happening and the reason is not to do with religion and any imam-hatip schools, but other political priorities of the government that are not aligned with quality education in goal.

Is there a policy by the government to segregate the school system?

Since 2011, in education and youth, we see education policies driven by a more cultural ideology. For example in high education boards, boarding schools or dormitories or in youth camps, there is an inclination and sometimes actually infrastructure in place that moves toward the segregation of genders. We don’t have girls’ schools as part of the high school [system] formally, but in practice we do have them now. We have girls’ vocational schools. Providing choice is a good thing. However, that choice should not be limited to what the government or the majority wants and deems appropriate. If you want to have an option of girls’ only dormitories, then you can have two options. One would be girls and boys segregated and the other one would be the girls and boys mixed. There are a lot of people in this country who would not mind sending their children to a dormitory or camp that is for both genders. However, there is the overarching policy of this government to segregate them, whereas we are saying, “Include other options.” Don’t take this girls and boys mixed option off the table. If you take this option off the table, then you are limiting other people’s choices, while providing a choice to people that are closer to your ideology.

More importantly, whatever students are, wherever they study, whichever school they go to is less important than what is taught and how it is taught; [we also] have to ensure that the what and how is definitely in line with the critical active pedagogy of today’s globalized pluralistic world. It is substance that matters, and if we can get the right substance, the rest will come.

Who is Batuhan Aydagül?


Batuhan Aydagül is the director of Education Reform Initiative (ERG) that aims to improve the decision-making process in education policies.

Aydagül graduated from the management department of Marmara University and has a degree on International Education Management and political analysis from Stanford University.

He has acquired 15 years experience on education policies working in different institutions and countries. He was awarded the Patricia Blunt Koldyke Fellowship for Social Entpreneurship by the Chicago   Council of Global Affairs in 2012.

Aydagül is also a board member of the Network of Education Policy Centers and on the advisory board of the Mother-Children Education foundation (AÇEV).