Turks demonstrate against the new compulsory education law, which enables students to study the Kora
Turks demonstrate against the new compulsory education law, which enables students to study the Koran. Photo by AP
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"I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principle is to protect the young, to respect the elderly, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence."

That is the wording of the declaration, which was part of a 1933 speech by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to the young, that all schoolchildren have to recite at the start of the school day. There is no morning prayer in Turkish schools nor a blessing to Allah. The homeland is above everything, and religion has no place in the schools. That is what Ataturk decided, and that is what the army instructed the government in the ultimatum it presented to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997.

It was in the wake of that ultimatum Erbakan, who was the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party, decided to resign. That was the last military coup in Turkey, and it was accomplished without officers having to seize power, as in previous overthrows, and without bloodshed.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will now be settling this account with the army. The new compulsory education law passed by the parliament, after fiery debates accompanied by fistfights and a 12-hour opposition filibuster, includes an educational reform that gives Turkish children the opportunity to study the Koran as an elective subject. Additionally, children who wish to study in the religious Imam-Hatip schools will be able to do so from the age of 10, as opposed to the existing law, which permits the choice of the religious track from age 15 only.

The new law extends the period of compulsory education from the current eight years to 12. Already at an intermediate stage the student, or his parents, will be able to choose whether he wants to study in a religious school, a trade school or an academic program.

The law is supposedly designed to expand the study framework, and to allow for development of a professional infrastructure for the Turkish economy by permitting educational choices at an early age. But its opponents, who come from secular and liberal circles, are afraid that it will significantly increase the number of students who attend the religious schools, and will inevitably bring about the religious revolution for which, they claim, Erdogan is aiming. Erdogan, for his part, declares that no child will be forced to study religion: "Is anyone going to drag children into these classes kicking and screaming? Of course not."

His opponents reply that the Turkish system, which Erdogan plans to destroy, was designed to prevent students from slowly transferring to the religious schools, rather than to expand the students' right to choose, since Turkey is a secular country by definition, and its constitution has stood until now as a defensive shield against the expansion of religious education.

And in fact, after the army brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Erbaken, in 1997, and ordered that religious education not begin before age 15, the number of students in the religious schools declined from 600,000 to as low as 60,000. Only in recent years has the number increased again, and today there are 300,000 students in 540 schools - less that 2 percent of the country's approxiimately 18 million school students.

Opponents of the new law point out that the prime minister is motivated not by a desire to extend the years of compulsory education, but rather by a religious and cultural ideology. Proof of that can be found, they claim, in the original draft bill (which did not pass ), which granted parents the opportunity to remove their children from school after four years of study and to continue their education at home. Had that become law, 10-year-old girls, or boys whose parents need them to help support the family, would have been permitted to end their studies and return home without anyone able to monitor their activities.

Everything about the reform that is presented as positive by one side is presented as dangerous by the other: While Erdogan claims that the new law will actually make it possible for students to deepen their knowledge in the context of compulsory education, his opponents reply that religious studies give rise to insularity rather than an expansion of knowledge. Instead of studying languages, technology and subjects that will prepare them for modern life, the children will become religious scholars who cannot contribute to the country's economy, they argue.

As proof, the law's opponents offer data from a study conducted by the World Bank, to the effect that only 16 percent of Turkish 15-year-olds achieve grades at a level equal or higher than the average in the OECD countries in general. Another survey, conducted by SETA, one of the country's most important research institutes, found that there is a "knowledge deficit" among Turkey's young people. Only 10 percent have traveled abroad, and only 41 percent speak a foreign language, with that figure including those young people who speak Kurdish or Arabic as a foreign language, rather than a European language.

According to the survey, watching television is the main leisure-time activity of the young people, with the highest rating achieved by "Valley of the Wolves," in which Israel and the United States are described as evil empires. Reading newspapers or books is stuck at the bottom of the list of leisure-time preferences, and in the final analysis, "We are getting an inward-looking generation, which does not know what is going on in the world and shapes its world view based on television," according to sociologist Nilufer Narli of Bahcesehir University, speaking to the newspaper Hurriyet. Open religious education, say the opponents of the new law, is liable to exacerbate the insularity that will lead to extremism.