Turkish educational system: Darwin out, jihad in

Staunchly defying series of rulings by European Court of Human Rights, Justice and Development Party government insists on keeping religion courses compulsory in state schools.

A 2016 photo shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan posing with students of a religious school in Istanbul. (AP)

2017/01/29 Issue: 91 Page: 16

The Arab Weekly
Yavuz Baydar

Some of the most alarming figures about crisis-stricken Turkey depict its dilapidated educational system.

An international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report released in December placed Turkey second from bottom among 35 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in mathematics, science and reading scores for 2015. Turkey slipped an average of seven places in mathematics, science and reading compared to rankings in the 2012 PISA survey.

The report’s findings also highlight that, compared to other OECD countries, Turkish teachers have the longest working hours, the highest number of students per class and the lowest starting salaries.

“The Turkish education system is in a coma. This crisis is more serious than the European Union and dollar issues. The PISA 2015 results are clearly telling us, Turkey cannot understand even what it has read,” said Ceyhun Irgil, a deputy of the main-oppo­sition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Such cries have hardly been heard due to the political crisis over proposed changes to the constitution to give the president more power and the lack of a properly functioning media.

As if the drop in test scores were not enough, the government announced changes in the curriculum, which are seen as the clear Islamisation of content.

Religious studies textbooks describe terms such as “secular­ism”, “positivism”, “reincarna­tion”, “nihilism” and “atheism” under the heading “’problematic beliefs”, and as “maladies”. In religious secondary schools — so-called Imam Hatip schools — the concept of jihad has been added to the content in a new chapter titled Battle on the Path of Allah: Jihad. In those schools, severe limitations are imposed on music classes.

Staunchly defying a series of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government insists on keeping religion courses compulsory in state schools.

Dominated by the teaching of Sunni Muslim practices, the classes have caused outrage within the Alevi Muslim minority, as well as secular segments of society. The government insists that the religion books teach the “culture of religions” but these arguments are contradicted by the content of the pages.

There is more: Teaching the theory of evolution has been stopped in secondary schools. Tayfun Atay, an anthropologist whose work focuses on Anatolian Islam, fiercely criticised the changes in a series of articles in which he concluded that the “Turkish school system has been seized by Salafists”.

Names of the founding fathers of the republic have been revised radically in the new curriculum. Pupils will not be taught about Ismet Inonu, successor of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as president and his crucial role in keeping Turkey a neutral power until the end of the second world war. As his name was stricken from the pages, the mention of Ataturk was decreased to a minimum.

Turkish Minister of Education Nabi Avci and his staff down­played the changes, saying that “it is a draft to be revisited after reactions”. Yet the mistrust of the government by secular Turks has deepened so much that it is taken for granted objections would be ignored.

Insensitivity and imposition are the pattern of the AKP, which remains under fire for not consulting stakeholders, includ­ing unions and parent-teacher associations.

Adding salt to the wound, state of emergency decrees following July’s coup attempt led to sacking or suspension of more than 30,000 teachers, many identified as secular, left-leaning or Kurdish. Their replacements have been systematically chosen based on partisanship rather than skills, Turkey’s Education and Science Workers’ Union claimed.

Under emergency rule, there is no denying that anti-secular and Sunni sectarians dominating the administrative echelons of Turkey are having a field day. Far worse is the fact that the educa­tional system of Turkey was obsolete before the AKP came to power and the destruction taking place now makes it more irrepara­ble for decades.

Yavuz Baydar is a journalist based in Istanbul. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) and a news analyst, he won the European Press Prize in 2014. He has been reporting on Turkey and journalism issues since 1980.

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