Education bill deepens Turkey's secular-religious divide

President Sezer may veto a law allowing graduates of high schools that train imams to enter public universities.

A recently passed higher education reform bill has thrust Turkey into a raging political debate, once again highlighting the secular country's continuing struggle with defining the role of religion in the public sphere.

The bill deals in large part with reorganizing the board that oversees Turkey's public universities. But its critics say they are alarmed by a piece of the legislation: a new law that opens up the public system to graduates of state-run religious high schools that train imams and preachers.

A previous law, passed in the wake of the 1997 "postmodern" coup - a bloodless military intervention that ended the rule of Turkey's first Islamist government - effectively shut out these students from higher education, directing them only to theology faculties.

The bill has drawn criticism from Turkey's secular establishment, which sees it as clearing the way for religious school students to pursue careers in government or the judiciary. Supporters, however, say the debate has been exaggerated - that students of religious studies simply want the option to pursue professional careers in a modern Turkey.

Ural Akbulut, rector of Middle East Technical University in Ankara, says the bill will erode the secular foundations laid out by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

"When the republic was formed by Atatürk he tried to transform the country from a religious country to a modern secular, European country. Secularity is the guarantee of a modern, European Turkish republic. Otherwise it can turn into an Islamic fundamentalist country," Mr. Akbulut says. "Nobody wants to see the country governed only by graduates of religious schools."

The bill has also led the country's military - which views itself as the supreme guardian of Turkey's secular tradition - to issue one of its strongest statements in recent years: "The sections of the society who are dedicated to the basic pillars of the Republic should not be expected to accept this motion."

The bill was put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose leaders are veterans of Turkey's political Islam movement. The party defines itself as socially conservative, rather than Islamist.

But opponents of the new education law say the emphasis AKP put on helping religious schools - known as "Imam Hatip" schools - is proof of a "hidden agenda" to promote Islam. There are some 80,000 students currently attending such schools, although those numbers could rise significantly with university study now an option for Imam Hatip graduates.

Aydin Dumanoglu, an AKP member of parliament and a founding member of the party, says the criticism is unwarranted. "This is to give those students, whoever is clever among them, more choice. I look at it as a question of human rights," the former university vice chancellor says. "There is no hidden agenda. Not at all."

Many here say the current controversy fails to discuss one of the underlying issues in society: how to effectively deal with the public demand for religious education. Most of the students attending the Imam Hatip schools - among them a large number of girls - say they have no intention of one day becoming preachers or imams.

"We are not discussing what is really going [on]," says Cuneyt Ulsever, a leading columnist with the daily newspaper Hurriyet. "Some people in Turkey want their kids to take a religiously weighted education, but would also like them to become lawyers, doctors, or journalists eventually."

Emin Sivri, a student at an Imam Hatip school in Istanbul's conservative Eyup neighborhood, says he is not interested in becoming an imam but is attending the school to learn about his religion. "Some students want to be engineers, teachers, things like that. I want to be an English translator. But we also want to learn our religion in a healthy way," he says.

Some have suggested that the new Imam Hatip law could be a form of political payback to the AKP's core of religiously conservative voters, who have helped carry the party to overwhelming success in both national and municipal elections.

The education reform bill is now in the hands of Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who is expected to veto it. The bill will then go back to AKP, who can decide to shelve it or use the party's majority in parliament to pass the bill again.

In recent years, the AKP agenda has focused on Turkey's bid to join the European Union, with the party passing a slew of human rights reforms and liberalization laws aimed at bringing Turkey closer to EU standards. Among those reforms has been a loosening of the military's control over the country's affairs.

And some say the battle over the bill is part of a larger change taking place in Turkey, Mr. Ulsever says. While the military and the entrenched civil bureaucracy have for decades been in control of the religious-secular debate in Turkey, the AKP's decision to introduce education reform indicates that may no longer be the case. Says Ulsever: "This system has been challenged and is losing ground in Turkey in the last few years. It is diminishing. What is really going on is that we are looking for the answer of who is really running the country."

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