Erdogan's Assault on Education

The Closure of Secular Schools

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

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