Zeynep, her husband Eydin and their two children moved to Istanbul from Konya five years ago. Zeynep is an event organizer at a private company, Eydin teaches at a university in Istanbul. Their children are students there. I met them at a dinner honoring attendees of a conference on the effects of the Arab Spring on the Middle East. Both are Muslim. Zeynep, elegantly dressed and wearing a silk head covering, drank orange juice; Eydin chose white wine.
How do you deal with religion at home?
"No problem," Zeynep said. "I'm observant, he less so."
And the children?
"Each to his own," Eydin volunteered. "We're not fanatics, our Islam is open."
I later learned that in Konya (a city in Turkey's Central Anatolia region ), their children went to Imam-Hatip schools - religious schools whose graduates could not easily gain university admission until a few years ago. Zeynep says the rationale behind sending them there was a desire for their children "to be better people," and to keep them away "from the terrible things you see today on the Internet and in the street." She explains that the plan was to send them abroad for university, "but now that's unnecessary, [Prime Minister Tayyip] Erdogan sorted it out."
Until 2009 Imam-Hatip schools were considered vocational schools and, for the purpose of university admissions, the grades of their graduates counted for less than those of candidates from secular, academic high schools. The policy was part of what Erdogan terms the "postmodern coup" of 1997, when the army forced then Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist, to resign. When he did, the army imposed a series of restrictions on religious schools in a bid to curb their enrollment and eventually to reduce their graduates' numbers in government positions.
In July 2009 Erdogan succeeded in eliminating the discriminatory grade calculation method and in opening all university fields of study to religious-school graduates. As a result, enrollment in religious high schools rose from around 65,000 in 2002-03 to more than 250,000 in 2011-12.
This year Erdogan raised the number of years of mandatory education from eight to 12, but also allowed Imam-Hatip schools to operate at the middle school level. In 1997 these schools were allowed to operate as high schools only. "We will raise a generation that is conservative and democratic, and embraces the values and historical principles of its nation," Erdogan explained in a speech earlier this year.
Ali Boga MP, from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, declared late last month: "We will increase the number of [Imam-Hatip] schools in records, we have the chance to turn all schools into Imam-Hatip [schools] ... now that the Koran and religious classes were added to schools' curriculum." He was referring to another new directive, beginning this year, according to which courses in the Koran and the life of Mohammed will be offered as electives in all schools.
Representatives from the ruling party and from opposition parties have been working on a constitution that would replace the current one, which was written in 1980 after the military coup. One of the main sticking points is the issue of religion, including the place of religious education. The chairman of the constitution committee is the Speaker of the Parliament, Cemil Cicek (JDP ).
The ruling party wants to amend the constitution to transfer responsibility for religious education in schools from the state to "the religious communities" - that is, to the clergy. Erdogan also wants to make religious instruction in schools mandatory. The Republican Turkish Party is opposed, but the Nationalist Movement Party is in favor.
All the parties support guaranteeing constitutionally the freedom of religious belief and worship, and the freedom to change one's religion or not to believe in any religion. There is, however, disagreement over whether to provide protection for carrying out religious rituals and commandments in public, or only rituals but not commandments, as the opposition proposes.
But while the constitution committee is proceeding at a relaxed pace, the government is translating its ambitions into action. Starting this year it has sanctioned the establishment of so-called cooperative schools, in which the parents, under Education Ministry supervision, set the curriculum. The state provides the land and infrastructure. Most of these schools will serve local religious communities, in areas where the other educational offerings are considered inadequate.
And just last week a scholar of religious law from the Education Ministry was appointed secretary general of the Council of Higher Education, whose various duties include curriculum approval and appointing professors and rectors in the country's universities.
Will Turkey become more religious? "Religion is part of our national identity, and learning the fundamentals of the religion doesn't make us fanatic Muslims; rather, it makes us more complete Turks," Zeynep says.
For its part, the JDP is trying to strike a balance between the suppression of Islam introduced by the National Security Council two decades ago and the religious aspirations of a large proportion of the population.
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