Why schools have become a battleground in Turkey

Turkey's education system has long been shaped by secular tradition. But July's coup attempt has given President Erdoğan new license to remold an institution he sees as central to his goal of further Islamizing Turkish society and the state. 

Amid Turkey’s widespread crackdown on teachers, Uygar Ozdemir was accused of providing financial support for a terrorist organization and promoting the organization on social media.

When Turkey’s teachers returned to school in September, they found their numbers decimated by expulsions, more than half their textbooks gone, and some 2,250 educational institutions sealed with police tape.

Schools have emerged as a critical battleground in Turkey, after a failed coup attempt on July 15 prompted sweeping purges of, by one estimate, 125,000 individuals from the police, armed forces, judiciary, and other ministries; more than 46,000 people have been arrested. Educators have borne the brunt of the crackdown, accounting for nearly half of those arrested, expelled, or suspended. 

For teachers, that has created a palpable sense of fear for the future. For students, it has meant a scramble amid uncertainty, dealing with new teachers and curricula, or joining the crush in search of new schools after their own schools were closed. 

But for Turkey, the new era is proving to be even more transformative.  

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), critics say, are sharply escalating a fight that has been simmering for years.

His goals are twofold: to block opposition voices in the name of fighting “terrorism,” removing anyone who could derail his vision of one society united in a common path and under the leadership of an all-
powerful executive president. And he wants to finally push aside anyone associated with a key ally-turned-enemy, the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers have gained positions of influence throughout the country’s institutions.

The ultimate aim is to squeeze nearly a century of secular tradition out of the system and further Islamize society and the state, critics say. A central means to that end is Turkey’s education system, with its profound role in imprinting Mr. Erdoğan’s vision on a rising generation.

“It is a project to transform society, in a way the ruling party wants ... to gravitate toward an identity of Sunni Islam, just a very specific definition,” says Turgut Yokuş, director of Istanbul (Turkey) Branch No. 2 of the secular teachers union Eğitim Sen.

“We have many ethnic groups in Turkey, many cultures, many languages, many beliefs,” says Mr. Yokuş, whose union has been targeted. “Turkey is a mosaic, and AKP wants one religion, one language, one congregation – one kind of people. They are crushing this diversity.”

Hundreds of educators agree, echoing such views during a recent protest in Istanbul.

“We are facing a period worse than the coup,” Tahsin Yeşildere, head of the Association of University Instructors, told Reuters. “In our country, which is being turned into a one-man regime through the state of emergency, all those in opposition resisting this trend have become targets.”

Sitting squarely in Erdoğan’s sights are disciples of Mr. Gülen, a charismatic Turkish cleric who once strongly supported the Islamist-rooted AKP and now is a fierce opponent. Turkey accuses him of masterminding the coup attempt from the United States, using loyalists secretly seeded for decades into every pillar of the bureaucracy and armed forces.

Turkey accuses the charismatic cleric, shown here at his home in Saylorsburg, Pa., of masterminding the July coup attempt.

The “cleansing,” as officials call it, has been breathtaking to many. But other tactics have raised eyebrows as well. Math books with equations that use the letters F and G – the initials of Gülen’s name – have been withdrawn for fear they include coded messages. So have more than 80 percent of high-quality science textbooks, teachers say, which were printed by Gülen-controlled publishing houses.

There is even debate about changing the universal qwerty keyboard, for “ergonomic” reasons, because the letters F and G stand together. And Turkish drivers can apply to have “FG” removed from license plates.

“This work is done in paranoia. The national income is being squandered [on it],” chided Çetin Osman Budak, an economist and lawmaker from the main opposition party. He said 13,000 tons of textbooks had been scrapped, and the Ministry of National Education says 58 out of 300 government-
issued textbooks will be rewritten to remove “terrorist propaganda.”

Widespread influence

Since 2013, especially, many have been skeptical of constant claims of Gülen’s widespread influence, as the AKP appeared to label every opponent a Gülenist. 

But officials say the scale of arrests reflects the deep infiltration of Gülenists in education – a fact confirmed by teachers and former members of Gülen’s movement, which is known as Hizmet, or “the service.” These individuals say adherents have increasingly controlled key posts and exam results since the 1990s. 

The government coined the term Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization, and long before the coup attempt accused any opponent of links to it. 

Gülen denies any link to the coup attempt. One former Gülenist interviewed by the Monitor asserts that, despite the magnitude of the purges, many Gülenists remain and that dominating the education system has long been a priority. 

“The remaining cryptos [people with secret political allegiances] probably represent 20 percent of the overall force as it stood five months ago,” says Said Alpsoy, who was a member for 17 years, until 2003.

“In the short term, these people don’t really pose a threat, so long as the state doesn’t loosen up on them,” asserts Mr. Alpsoy. Government efforts thus far are a “healthy response,” he says, though “it is impossible to make no mistakes.

“Not only have [Gülenists] suffered a big psychological blow, but now they have to devote all their time and energy to keeping themselves ... under the radar of the state.”

Turning point

The coup attempt proved a key turning point. Turkey is no stranger to such attempts by the military, which has considered itself a protector of state secularism since the republic’s founding in 1923. Coups have changed the government four times since 1960, twice to stop Islamist trends.

Erdoğan hailed this coup attempt as a “gift from God,” exposing his enemies and allowing him to take action against them. He’s credited with preventing his own removal from power by calling AKP loyalists onto the streets. Some 240 Turks died in the violence that ensued. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attends a ceremony Oct. 29 to mark the republic’s anniversary.

Yet even before July, classrooms had become contested spaces. Defiance marked graduation ceremonies this year, and students from 400 schools signed a petition in June to protest what they called a bid to impose Islamic and pro-government ideology.

Teachers union leaders at the time told the Monitor the government was “using education as a political tool” to “create new generations that obey.”

Now the process is gaining speed, teachers say. “They are using this opportunity to lower voices of criticism of these policies,” says Yokuş, the local Istanbul union leader. “They want to employ those who think like them, but are not necessarily qualified.” 

In one of the latest sweeps of 10,000-plus individuals, more than one-third of those dismissed were educators. The same day, new executive orders abolished elections for university rectors, who will now be appointed by the president.

“It’s a measure implemented to curb Gülenist influence in Turkish universities, which they gained by blackmailing, threatening, and pressuring fellow academics,” says an official in the president’s office, asserting it does not give new powers to Erdoğan.

AKP officials say that despite the purges, there are enough new teachers and classrooms. The Ministry of National Education just announced 60,000 new hires for 2017. And they note the education budget has expanded 10-fold since they came to power in 2002 and now accounts for 20 percent of state spending.

They also say they support a rigorous curriculum. To make Turkey a 21st-century state and “defeat poverty and ignorance, we must absolutely invest in education,” Minister of National Education İsmet Yilmaz said on Nov. 3. He concluded on a more political note: “We need to evolve our students to embody the spirit of July 15, which will keep us alive forever in this land, [among] people who know this country owns its own national will.”

But teachers say the upheavals are affecting classes. “These waves of government decrees have turned into a witch hunt,” says a fired teacher from the south-central city of Antakya, who asked not to be named. She is a member of the Eğitim Sen union, which has few ties to Gülen or the coup, but has long criticized the Islamizing trend backed by both Gülen and the AKP. It has also spoken out against Turkey’s renewed war against Kurdish militants in the southeast.

In early September, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said he expected that 14,000 members out of some 120,000 would be removed “on the basis of ties to the PKK,” the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. 

“The status of schools after teachers were forcibly removed is now a lot worse,” says the Antakya teacher. “When we run into our students ... they rush to us; some cry and hug my neck. They want us back, because we have established a bond with them, both emotional and intellectual. This sort of bond is what determines ... academic success ... [which] will now be disrupted.”

Shared dream

Gülen and the AKP long used each other to advance a shared dream of widespread religiosity. The AKP used Gülenist influence among police and prosecutors to blunt the military’s role in protecting secularism.

Likewise, Gülen used the AKP’s electoral victories and control of government to create an empire centered on modern schools. That now includes a network of schools in roughly 160 countries, where emphasis is on math and science. There are some 150 schools in the US, and in Turkey, they are often much stronger than state-run schools.

Gülen recognized two things, says Alpsoy, the former Gülen insider who has written two books about the movement. First, that ever since Ottoman times, any social transformation was carried out through the state or the political elite. Second, that from the earliest days of the Turkish Republic, “all Turks had this keen awareness of the vital importance of education,” says Alpsoy.

He saw how those norms became a strategy, and a recruiting device. Alpsoy says he used it in the coastal city of Izmir, showing off modern schools paid for by Gülen-linked businesspeople to recruit officers. 

“These groups of officers ... would be incredibly impressed and ready to commit themselves to the movement,” he says, because of what it meant for higher educational standards. “It was really an appeal to the idealist part of their hearts.”

At the same time, new followers felt they were becoming part of an elite, says Alpsoy. “They would feel honored; it would be a leap in their social status.”

News reports, confirmed in part by several educators, describe how Gülenists perpetuated their influence by controlling exam boards, leaking answers in advance to followers. The pro-government Daily Sabah reported that 8,500 academics had been assigned to universities that way, in a scheme it claimed had been revealed by inspecting exam success rates over two decades. 

“The month of August was spent looking at all universities, going faculty by faculty, literally professor by professor, and ... they were doing Facebook searches, email searches, to try to ferret out [Gülenists],” says one Western academic with years of experience in the education system, who asked not to be identified. “There were just blood baths in other faculties, especially political science and international relations.”

One eye-opening moment came shortly before the coup attempt, when she spotted a trail of torn bits of a US dollar bill. Only later would it become clear that the person ahead was “shredding evidence” that he or she was a Gülenist, says the academic, who was unaware that Gülenists used $1 bills with certain letters in the serial numbers to denote rank and identify each other. “Everyone is afraid.”

Among them is Betül, a student counselor suspended for taking part in a December 2015 Eğitim Sen union antiwar protest. She faces terror-related charges.

“I couldn’t pay the rent this month,” says the teacher, now posted to Istanbul after a stint in the turbulent southeastern city of Diyarbakir. “My concerns are: Will I be fired? And if I am fired, will I be arrested?”

“I know I haven’t done anything illegal – only participated in union actions, exercising my democratic rights,” she says. “But we have no idea how the government will interpret those democratic rights.... The state is using this [coup attempt] as an excuse to crack down on us.”  

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