By Sibel Hurtas
March 12, 2019
The vast expansion of religious schools in
Turkey — one of the hallmarks of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)
16-year rule — has become another point of ideological polarization in a deeply
divided society. The public imam hatip schools — which offer extensive Quranic
studies — are growing into a dominant element in the education system. But
popular objection to their expansion is also growing.
According to Education Ministry figures,
some 627,000 students are currently enrolled in 1,605 imam Hatip high schools
across the country. The ministry’s investment plans envisage a continued
expansion of the schools, but whether this means a growing demand is an open
question. Ministry statistics might give an idea.
In the 2012-2013 school year, when the imam
hatip schools were allowed into the middle-school level, Turkey had 708 imam
hatip high schools with about 380,000 students. The number of schools has
constantly grown since then, but the corresponding increase in students appears
to have ceased in recent years. In the 2015-2016 school year, the number of
students peaked at 677,205, with 1,149 imam hatip high schools open across the
country. The following year, the number of schools rose to 1,452, but they had
645,318 students. In 2017-2018, imam Hatip high schools increased further to
1,605, while the number of their students went down to 627,503, including open
high schools. Overall, however, enrolment in imam hatip schools has grown
sharply in a few years, representing a significant portion of the total high
school populace, which numbered about 5.7 million last year.
According to Education Minister Ziya
Selcuk, people have embraced imam hatip schools because “the state introduces
truthfully the sources of Islam to students,” hence the increase in enrollment.
But not everyone agrees with this
explanation. According to Feray Aytekin Aydogan, head of the Education and
Science Laborers Trade Union, the AKP has reshaped the education system in a
way that pushes students into imam hatip high schools. Referring to an annual
nationwide exam that determines where middle-school graduates go on to study,
she said that pupils who fail to enter language, science or vocational high
schools “are left with no other option but to enrol in imam hatip schools”
while “the well-off go to private high schools.”
According to Ministry of National Education
statistics — which have made recent headlines — enrolment in the religious
schools remains below Ankara’s target. The Education Ministry had allocated a
224,950-strong contingent for new imam Hatip enrolments this year, but only
117,662 pupils actually enrolled. The rate suggests that despite the overall
increase over the years, the appeal of the schools remains far from what the
Aydogan said that parents concerned about
their children's professional and economic futures were steering away from imam
hatip schools and turning to regular academic education. None of the imam hatip
high schools managed to fill up its contingent in last year’s exam, she noted.
According to press reports last week,
several imam hatip schools in the provinces of Batman, Bursa, Kocaeli and
Sanliurfa were closed down due to lack of students. The pro-government press
countered that the schools were not shut down but moved to new buildings.
This controversy aside, an open struggle is
underway against Education Ministry moves to convert an array of existing high
schools to imam Hatip schools.
A case in point is the Ismail Tarman School
in Istanbul’s Besiktas district, a secular stronghold. Parents have been holding
protests outside the school since 2016, when a decision was made to convert the
school into an imam hatip school. Upon the petition of parents, an Istanbul
court suspended the decision, but the ruling was not implemented on the ground.
The parents protested outside the school again on March 4.
Yildirim Kaya, deputy chair of the main
opposition Republican People’s Party in charge of education policies, joined
the protest in support of the parents. In remarks to Al-Monitor, Kaya argued
that the underlying motivation in transforming the school was to erode the
secular fabric of the area. “There are 13 other imam hatip schools in a
2-kilometer (1-mile) diameter around the school they want to transform. Only
two regular schools are left in the area,” he said. “What could be the logic
behind this desire to convert those schools to imam hatip schools? The only
logic here is a desire to conservatize the area. There is no need for an imam
hatip school, and they are acting on the basis of political motivations rather
than educational needs.”
Parents in other corners of the country
have been waging similar struggles against the conversion of existing schools
to imam hatip schools. In converted schools, only a small number of students
who do not want to stay can generally get a transfer to other schools, with
some forced to opt for private schools. For Kaya, this amounts to “punishing
those who oppose the conservative education policies.”
Not only the quantity but also the quality
of imam hatip schools is a subject of debate. According to a 2018 activity
report by the Education Ministry’s strategy development department, the
year-end grade average of students in secondary education was 76 on the scale
of 100, while the imam hatip average stood at 65.9, coupled with a notable
The government, however, continues to
invest in these religious schools. The Education Ministry’s investment program
for 2019 includes plans to open 162 new imam hatip high schools, with a budget
of 460 million Turkish liras ($84.1 million) allocated for the purpose.
For Aydogan, the drive is not sustainable.
“We did a survey last year and took a picture of Turkey on this issue,” she
said. “We saw that parents concerned about the future of their children take a
stance in favor of academic education, no matter how they vote in elections.”
Sibel Hurtas is an award-winning Turkish journalist who focuses on human
rights and judicial and legal affairs. Her career includes 15 years as a
reporter for the national newspapers Evrensel, Taraf, Sabah and HaberTurk and
the ANKA news agency. She won the Metin Goktepe Journalism Award and the Musa
Anter Journalism Award in 2004 and the Turkish Journalists Association’s Merit
Award in 2005. In 2013, she published a book on the murders of Christians in
Turkey. Her articles on minorities and unresolved killings appear on the Faili
Belli human rights blog.
Why do not you openly start your campaigning to get
In the name of terrorism, extremism, actually PEOPLE’S target
is to eliminate Islam.