There is no doubt that each community has the right to express its religious identity or any other identity in the framework of freedom and personal choice. However, changing the structure of the secular state and removing its secular foundation will certainly result in problems that challenge Turkey’s internal stability. In fact, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's opponents are claiming that his ultimate goal is to eradicate the secular system and establish a religious one instead. This will nullify Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union, if it really wants to join it.
Several months ago, Erdogan talked about the need to "breed a religious and conservative generation in Turkey," sparking a number of reactions within the country. Turkey is a secular state; it is not the prime minister’s job to be concerned with the religious life of society. Matters regarding religion are optional and up to the individual — the state has no right to meddle in these affairs.
This was not the first statement from Erdogan that reflected the intentions of the Justice and Development Party regarding governmental power. The biggest step that this party has taken to abolish secularism in Turkey was the gradual weakening of the military institution, the protector of the secular system, until it came under the full control of the political authorities. Democratic countries often deem such a measure normal and essential for the consolidation of the democratic system. However, the balance of power in the domestic Turkish arena and the sensitivities plaguing its social components make such a measure an attempt to demolish the secular system and establish a religious one instead.
On August 1, in Kars in the far east of Turkey, at the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of a mosque on the campus of Caucasus University, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said that "the presence of a mosque on a university campus is as important as the presence of the colleges," adding, “It is difficult to chose which one is more important than the other."
Furthermore, the government's determination to establish a mosque at the top of a hill on the Asian side of Istanbul — in the region called Camlica — as well as the fact that all public authorities approved this project, has sparked equally strong reactions. Istanbul does not lack mosques, and the awaited mosque will be the largest in Turkey and possibly in the whole world. This move aims to show the Islamic face of Turkey to the world, which some have deemed a step that will only satisfy Erdogan's wishes.
However, all of these actions remain minor in comparison to the plan of the government, or the Ministry of Education in particular, to change the educational system starting with the coming school year.
The so-called "Imam Khatib" religious schools have become a symbol of the conflict between Turkey’s Islamists and secularists since the end of World War II, as well as a symbol of the exploitative politics involved in this conflict. These schools were primarily established in 1949 by the hard-line secular Republican People's Party with the particular aim of winning the votes of religious groups in the 1950 elections. They later became widespread in the era of Islamic governments under Adnan Menderes, Necmettin Erbakan and Turgut Ozal.
These schools are quite similar to public schools except that they have additional religious courses. As a result of this religious emphasis, these schools have graduated a number of mosque imams, preachers and others to work in religious and educational institutions.
According to the new educational system, educational levels are divided into four stages, each lasting for four years. Thus, students who finish primary school can continue their intermediate and secondary education in the Imam Khatib schools. This helps breed generations that are more religious at an early age, especially in the case of girls.
As expected, requests to enroll in the Imam Khatib schools have exploded this year. The number of students enrolled in the schools last year amounted to approximately a quarter-million students, whereas this year, the number of applicants reached three quarters of a million, a number that the schools currently cannot accommodate.
In addition, the government, through the Ministry of Education, has opened hundreds of special courses to teach the Koran.
The educational curriculum now adopted in schools includes courses that focus on the life of the Prophet Muhammad and similar topics. Not a day goes by without news about the banning of alcohol in one area or another, sometimes including universities.