Turkish girls attend a class at the Kazim Karabekir Girls' Imam-Hatip School in Istanbul, Turkey, February 10, 2010.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

In Turkey, where there has been a rise in Islamic religiosity, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the pro-Islamist Development and Justice Party (AKP), is converting some public schools into  seminaries called imamhatips (or traditional training schools for Sunni Muslim clergy) in an effort to raise a generation of “religious youth.” 

Students who perform poorly on entrance exams for secondary school are shunted into imamhatips where they study the Koran for up to 13 hours a week and take courses on the life of the Prophet Muhammad and Arabic. Erdogan has boasted that during his tenure as president, enrollment in these schools soared from 63,000 to over one million. The number of imamhatips increased by 73 percent between 2010 and 2014 and 13 percent of Turkish students now study at such schools.

Outraged, dozens of Turkish parents in Istanbul created an advocacy group called Hands Off My School to fight against Erdogan’s education policy. In June of 2014, when the government tried to convert the local middle school to an imamhatip, the group circulated a petition that quickly collected 13,000 signatures from other parents. A young lawyer from the neighborhood, Yasemin Zeytinoglu, even filed an emergency suspension with the Istanbul Administrative Court to halt the conversion.

Government officials eventually dropped the order to convert the school, giving the parents a short-lived victory. But the school stopped taking new students and after the current classes graduate, it will reopen as an extracurricular center. Left with no choice but to enroll their children in a different middle school, some parents told us that they felt the government was punishing them for protesting.

In September, at the start of the 2014 school year, the members of Hands Off learned that 40,000 children were registered at imamhatips without parental permission, including the grandson of Turkey’s Chief Rabbi, Ishak Haleva. Hands Off, along with the tens of thousands of people from the secular teachers’ union and from religious minority groups, rallied forcefully in response. During one nationwide demonstration in February, the government responded by locking students inside their schools and calling the police to fire water cannons on protestors.

In Gongoren, a working class borough of Istanbul where three middle schools were recently converted to imamhatips, 50 men and women met over the summer with Zeytinoglu. She told her audience, “The decision to change the school wasn’t legal. You were never asked if you wanted it to change.” Zeytinoglu has five cases in front of the court now, each for a different school. She argued that in Gongoren, officials did not adequately consult parents and gave no notice before converting the school. Further, there was insufficient demand for religious education in the neighborhood given that it already had seven other imamhatips.

One parent, Gulay Kacar, a stout woman who wore a paisley headscarf, has a son in the fifth grade at Mehmet Akif Middle School, now an imamhatip. To avoid religious education, which she said will deprive her son of science classes, she will have to send him to a school in another neighborhood where, “there is so much violence, people are stabbing each other.” She told the parents, “They put pressure on us. They force our kids to have the education that they want.”

Kacar, along with Nurcan Aybalik, whose child was also a student at the now-converted school, set up a signature drive in the Kale Outlet Mall in the city center. Shortly after, five clean-shaven youths approached them and swore at the two women, telling them that they had loosened their headscarves and had made prostitutes of themselves by questioning Islam. “Islam is coming and we will make you observe our laws,” they said, according to both Kacar and Aybalik.

Students of an Imam Hatip high school march during a Republic Day ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, October 29, 2015.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Extremist views are on the rise in Turkey. Twenty percent of Turks support responding to an insult against Islam with violence, up almost 8 percent from last year, according to the Turkish polling firm Metropoll. A Pew Research Center poll released last month reported that eight percent of Turkish people have a favorable opinion of ISIS and 19 percent are “undecided.”

“Because of the mindset of religious education, we are being polarized,” said Aybalik. Erdogan and the AKP have fought hard to hold onto their tenuous majority in parliament, and religious values are a cornerstone of their message to their Sunni Muslim base. Meanwhile, political opponents warn that religious educational policies will polarize the citizenry. Minority groups, especially Alevi–Muslims, who follow a blend of Shia and syncretic beliefs and make up as much as 25 percent of the Turkish population, are increasingly alienated.

In 2011, three Alevi Turkish parents of secondary school students brought a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights, stating that their children were forced to attend Sunni Islamic classes, in violation of the first protocol of the Convention on Human Rights Protocol: the right to education. In February of this year, the court made a final ruling, determining that Turkey’s compulsory religious education violates children’s rights. Turkey’s own highest court ruled similarly in June, deeming the AKP’s policies unconstitutional. The government has ignored these rulings. Some fear that the European Union, which recently pledged $3.2 billion in Syrian refugee aid to Turkey—in return for helping staunch the flow of migrants into Europe—may in the future turn a blind eye to such human rights abuses in Turkey.

Turkish girls read books at the library at the Kazim Karabekir Girls' Imam-Hatip School in Istanbul, February 10, 2010.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

As for claims that these religious schools breed extremism, Turkey’s religious leaders have countered that their Sunni education has nothing to do with radical Islam. “Islam is a religion of peace and we teach this,” said Huseyin Korkut, the head of Onder, an umbrella organization for imamhatip alumni. “Among the graduates [of imamhatips] almost no one joined Al Qaeda or ISIS.” Indeed, many graduates become public servants.

However, radicalism is a growing problem in Turkey. More than 1,000 have joined ISIS—many of them disaffected youth from neighborhoods with limited educational opportunities—and the presence of extremist recruitment cells in Turkey’s southern provinces is well established. Although there is no evidence that the imamhatips are a source of radicalization in Turkey, it is crowding out opportunities to build critical thinking and appreciation for other religions. That certainly does not help combat ISIS, an extremist group that justifies killing and raping of non-Muslim “apostates.”

To be sure, the problem isn’t just a Turkish one. In ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq, the curriculum teaches the group’s extreme Salafist interpretation of Islam, with a focus on militancy and fighting “non-believers,” even at the primary school level. In Syria, even outside of ISIS’ domain, radical Islamic groups such as Jabhat al Nusra have opened sharia schools where girls must wear the niqab and are segregated from boys. And in Jordan, which has sent 2,000 fighters to ISIS, schoolbooks teach that “holy war” and the killing of captured enemies are appropriate responses to attacks on Islamic lands. Zogan Obiedat, a former Education Ministry official, recently warned, “Islamic State ideology is there, in our textbooks.” In fact, the Jordanian government has launched an initiative to rewrite its textbooks.

For her part, Kacar insists that her fight is not against religious education for those that want it—she herself is a devout Sunni Muslim, although she did not go to an imam–hatip. She is fighting for the right to choose her child’s education, a principle enshrined in international law. But for now, it seems that Erdogan is winning. At the end of November, the courts had not given a ruling on any of Zeytinoglu’s five cases. Kacar was unable to keep her son at home any longer, and so he, along with hundreds of other children from Gongoren, started school in the next town over.

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  • XANTHE ACKERMAN is the Executive Director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting. She is a journalist, producer, and education expert and a frequent contributor to TIME, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among others. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her @XAckerman.
  • EKIN CALISIR is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and founder of Sapka Productions. Prior to this, she worked at Al Jazeera Turk as a director and producer of short documentaries.
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