Metin Camcigil, Former President of ASA

Turkey is currently engulfed by a debate over religious education as it frequently was since WWII. The government is intent to increase the number and hours of already practiced Koranic courses in public schools. The intellectuals object to it. The President pleaded with the religious authority in the government, and the officials consented to review their proposal. The proposal and the President’s plea is not an isolated incident, they should be assessed in the perspective of history.

Opponents of the proposal blame this controversy on the Islamic affiliation of the ruling party. While this is obvious, it is not however unique for this government to work on extending the depth and breadth of religious education. The burden is not solely on the current administration. The roots of this controversy lie in the policies and politics of predecessor governments and political parties, which formed the public opinion over the course of fifty-five years. The administration is committed to deliver on its promises to the people who elected them. It started in 1948 when the government of I. Inonu (named the National Leader on the same day Atatürk was named Expired! Leader), comrade in arms of Ataturk, and the Republican Party founded by Ataturk introduced courses on religion in public schools, for the sake of attracting the votes of opposing anti-reformist groups. This political ploy continued with an increasing intensity from election to election, thus from government to government. Once founding religion oriented political parties became possible by rescinding in 1991 Article 163 of the Constitution politicians could now declare “If Koran courses and Imam schools are in contravention of the Unitary Education Statute, the problem is not with religious education, it is with that law”(Demirel); and, “Democracy is only a means for us to achieve the system we want. Republican era forced on people Kemalism as if a religion” (Erdogan). Although not even a single Ottoman Sultan went to Hadj many Prime Ministers, starting with Ozal, went to Hadj in a showlike fashion. Promotion of religion and religious education became a political agenda and an administrative function.

During the fifteen years of reforms led by Ataturk from 1923 to 1938 literacy grew from approximately 10 % to 25 % thanks to the change of the Arabic script to Latin and to Unitary Education system; in the following 65 years literacy inched up to 80 %. The following is a random selection of the gradual reversal of a rational education system introduced with the advent of the republican era. Imam schools opened in 1949; People’s Homes (equivalent of community centers) that provided public education in 5.000 locations throughout the country were closed in 1951; Call to prayer was to be delivered in Arabic rather than in Turkish as of 1952; Graduates of Imam schools became eligible to enter higher education in 1967; Koran courses were introduced in elementary and middle schools in 1968; 80 students were sent to Al-Azhar school in Egypt with public funds in 1985 (B. Guvenc, Turk Kimligi, 1996); Theological school graduates were allowed to teach while denying this qualification to graduates of other schools in 1989; Mandatory courses on Turkish reforms of 1920s and 30s became elective in 2003. In addition to these publicly funded education efforts an estimated 500 private religious schools are in operation. Many cultural centers were also converted to Mesjits (chapels).

As to the consequences of this emphasis on religious education: The Religious Affairs Administration had to increase its staff (paid from public funds of course) to 81.000 in 1998 in order to staff 73.000 mosques, which increased from 12.000 at the end of the Ottoman period (N. Bolugiray, Doruktaki Irtica, 1994); The number of Imam schools increased to 718, teachers to 18.809 and their student body to 511.000 in 1999 with an annual graduation rate of 24.000; The number of students studying at Al-Azhar reached 5.000 in 1994 (Guvenc); The number of Koran courses reached 5.500 and the student body 220.00 in 1994 (Bolugiray). It is estimated that about half of the university faculty is religiously oriented. Annual rate of scientific publications is 3774. A study published by the Turkish Ministry of Industry in 2003 puts the annual investment in R&D at $ 24 per capita. It is discouraging to compare these figures with those of other countries.

Now let us look at the other side of the coin in education. The total number of K-12 grade schools in the country is 59.000 and of teachers is 457.000 for a student body of 12 million (some 20.339 per school, 2625 per teacher). There are only 394 public libraries in the country. Of approximately twenty million (1/3 of the population) school age population eight million (40% of school age people and 8% of the population) is not schooled. Hence, average educational level of the population is 3.5 years of schooling.

Consequences beyond the educational field can be summarized as follows: During the first 15 years of the Republic, while there was a worldwide economic and political upheaval and while paying back the Ottoman debts, the annual average of economic growth was 9.4 without any foreign assistance. In the following 65 years it was …. with innumerable foreign assistance and domestic and foreign debts. When polygamy was the norm of the supreme religious law (Sharia) during the Ottoman period the rate of polygamous families in Istanbul was 5% and in the rural areas 8%; Currently under the prohibition of polygamy these rates are 15 and 22% respectively (Bolugiray). Businessmen’s organizations entered into politics. Although TUSIAD generally avoided mentioning adherence to Republican reform principles by never mentioning Ataturk’s name, an anti-reformist business organization (MUSIAD) was formed with considerable financial power. Five financial institutions and 18 holding companies are known to have Islamic agenda or Saudi support.

All these developments occurred during the same 65 years in which many nations fought devastating wars. They rose from the ashes of those wars, and they became economic powers, contributed immensely to the universal scientific knowledge and art as never before, and came to be known as members of the developed world.

While admittedly there may be other social factors that influenced these results in Turkey the quality of education must have been a major factor. Legendary economists like Schumpeter and Weber were of the view that the success of the capitalist economy was based on Christian values. That may be, but no one of sound mind ever dared to claim that the advance of science is also based on religious values. Fareed Zakariyah rightly observed in Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad that the key to development is political and economic reform, not religious reform; to emphasize a change in Islam is the wrong advice. I would add: to emphasize religious education in expectation of modernization of Islam is also the wrong route to take. Even the co-existence of Islamic and rational education in a dual system, like in the Western world, is proven to be a drag on development. Turks had a first hand experience with that. Their modernization effort did not start with Ataturk. The last one hundred years of the Ottoman Empire was replete of efforts to modernize. They failed miserably. Duality in education only perpetuates the above-mentioned developmental problems if it does not exacerbate them. It is common knowledge that religious teaching is dogmatic, exclusionist, ideological, and not conducive to inquisitive thinking, and to research beyond the boundaries of human knowledge. Religion is a strong power. It is even militant, as the continued assassination of several intellectuals since 1970s and the massacre of Sivas in 1994 demonstrated. Even a question raised with strong believers is condemned to be anti-religion. In all national issues the religious faction, even when in minority, will have the last word. After all, the loudest voice, the most aggressive party, the most financially powerful group will have the last word in a democracy. Their slogan “Sovereignty belongs only to God” might ultimately overtake the Constitutional edict “Sovereignty belongs to the people without any condition and reservation”. Renown social scientist late L. Lipson’s observation “The quality of every democracy is the quality pervading the mass of its citizens” is to be reckoned with. These were indeed the thoughts that produced the principle of Unitary Education in Turkey.

This trend in public education must be seen also in the perspective of the growth of population from approximately ten million at the start of the Republic to almost seventy million today. Each generation that joined the population is further removed from the emotions, sacrifices, causes, and objectives of the republic and of the reforms. After fifty-five years of application of the religious education policy with an increasing intensity, the retrogressive population will soon constitute the majority. It is not, therefore, far fetched to assume that the reversal of reforms is to become the national will. The results of each election held since 1950 is an indication of this trend. The Ottoman Empire was more oriented towards the European system than today’s Turkey. In Fact, it was that long Ottoman orientation with numerous failures that paved the way to the Messianic arrival of Ataturk. Now the Constitutional provision “To elevate the Turkish people above the level of contemporary civilization” is no more than an aspiration of an idealistic, progressive, and patriotic portion of the population, that does not want to see Turkey join the Middle Eastern society, instead of Europe, remain indefinitely in the group of developing countries dependent on the developed countries, and not to be able to defend its national interests on the international scene.

If it is still possible to enforce the provisions of the Constitution, the action to be taken is to educate the public on the realities summarized above. Since it is absurd to expect the people or their choice of administrations to undertake the task of presenting the realities to the public, the only resort is for the President to show leadership, address the people, and enforce the Constitutional requirements.