Turkey's new compulsory religious education provokes heated debate

The Turkish government's decision to introduce compulsory religious education in all schools has provoked a heated debate in this predominently Muslim but constitutionally secular country.

The Ministry of Education is now preparing the program and recruiting teachers. But it may take several months before the compulsory teaching of Islam starts in the schools.

Religious instruction on a voluntary basis has been in force for more than two decades. Before that, under Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, religious education in public and private schools was banned.

In the 1960s and 1970s, conservative governments encouraged religious teaching in schools and the creation of special schools for the clergy. During those years, several institutions were set up to bring up "imams" and religious leaders.

It is interesting that the decision to make religious instruction compulsory in all schools (starting from the primary grades) has been taken not by a conservative government, but by the military regime, which strictly adheres to the principles and reforms of Ataturk.

Actually, the Turkish generals who now rule Turkey are far from pious or supportive of Islamic fundamentalism.

The generals staged the coup last year in part because of the threat created by a growing fundamentalist movement that wanted to restore Islamic laws and traditions as in the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Gen. Kenan Evren, the head of state, has repeatedly stressed in his public speeches the country's loyalty to secularism and opposition to Islamic fanaticism. In a speech during Ramadan, he did not hesitate to say that he was not fasting, emphasizing that secularism meant a complete freedom of practicing one's faith.

Announcing the government's decision to introduce compulsory Islamic teaching in schools, however, General Evren said, "This will enable our children to receive religious education through official channels. . . . This is not against secularism."

Government officials, defending the new policy, are trying to prove that compulsory religious instruction in schools is not contrary to secularism. They say religious teaching in schools is common in many Western countries that have secular constitutions.

But this is contested by many Turkish intellectuals, including schoolteachers , who note the paradox of Islamic education becoming compulsory under a military regime loyal to Ataturk's reforms.

The government's decision on compulsory religious education seems to be motivated by the desire to take Islamic teaching fully under control of the state. In fact, the government is now planning to ban all private Koran courses , some of which were conducted illegally.

"The compulsory religious instruction will just consist of teaching religion in a rational and scientific way, and will in no way oblige students to practice it," a senior Turkish official said.

The government hopes this will help to bring up a generation aware of the Islamic culture and traditions, loyal to the country's secular principles, and opposed to any drift toward religious fanaticism.

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