When a friend first voiced concerns over changes in Turkey’s educational system a couple of years ago, I didn’t take it very seriously. My friend, who had a son in primary school, argued that the changes were all aimed at installing a religious education. In 2012, the government introduced a 12-year, compulsory education system with four-year phases of primary, secondary and high school, replacing the old system where compulsory education consisted of five years of primary and three years of secondary school. My friend argued that the overhaul was designed to subject children to religious education at an earlier age. I thought he was exaggerating and being paranoid. But two years on, looking at the combined effect of developments since then, I see that my friend’s concerns were not paranoia, but an early warning.
The new school system — widely known as the “4+4+4 system” — might have seemed to have nothing to do with religion at first glance, but one of its main motivations appears to have been the opening of secondary sections in the imam-hatip (vocational schools to educate imams and preachers) schools, which offer full-fledged Islamic education. Those schools were previously limited to high-school level. Today, children can be enrolled in an imam-hatip school right after they complete four years of primary education. As their names suggest, the schools’ purpose is to train Muslim clergy. Yet, many students with no intention of becoming imams are sent to those schools by pious, conservative parents eager to give their offspring a sound religious education. Thus, the government’s introduction of secondary sections in the religious schools might be seen as a public service intended for families seeking better religious education for their children.