By Orhan Kemal Cengiz
September 23, 2014
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has announced that both secondary school and high schools students will from now on be able to attend school while wearing a headscarf. If we were a normal country I may have welcomed this development because I believe this step may encourage ultra-conservative segments of society to send their girls to schools more comfortably.
However, we live in a country in which the former prime minister, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared his wish to rise “pious generations.” And, for a long time, almost all steps in the education field have been taken to have his wish come true. Mandatory lessons on religion continue to be given to everyone regardless of their faith or what sect they belong to. In these lessons the Sunni understanding of Islam is imposed on every student. Turkey has been condemned twice by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) over these mandatory lessons.
With the recent central examination and location system, commonly known as TEOG, they have forced most students to enrol in religious schools, known as Imam-Hatip high schools. As I had written before, even the grandson of the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Turkey was enrolled in one of these schools because they are now the default option within the education system -- namely, if you do not specify your choice for a particular school, or if you cannot earn a certain number of points, the “system” automatically enrols you in one of these religious schools.
From a voice recording leaked from a meeting between Bilal Erdoğan, one of the sons of President Erdoğan, and some party members and officials, we know that Bilal Erdoğan wishes to see more and more students enrol in these religious schools. He also hopes girls and boys go to separate schools. Bilal Erdoğan is not only the son of President Erdoğan; he is also one of the directors of the Foundation for Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), which has accepted donations of hundreds, maybe thousands, of plots of land from municipalities and public institutions, and built Imam-Hatip schools and dormitories for students on this land.
It is clear that this last step of allowing female students to cover their heads is just part of this whole new “religification” of the education system. But it is also problematic from other points of view. Can you, as a secular state, take steps to only allow students of one faith, one sect, etc. to use religious symbols? Will they also allow Christian students to enter into buildings wearing a cross around their neck? Will Alevi students feel free using symbols of their beliefs? Will atheist students be allowed to wear or carry symbols expressing their beliefs? We know none of that will happen. This government does not even recognize cemevis, Alevi places of worship, as places of worship. They now plan to open prayer rooms in every school, but they will of course never consider opening cemevis in schools.
The government is marketing this last step of allowing female students to attend lessons while wearing a headscarf as freedom. Freedom exists when everyone can enjoy it. If states recognize only the rights of certain segments of society while denying them to others, what they are doing is imposing certain beliefs on everyone, creating a state religion and an official ideology. And this is exactly what this government is doing in Turkey right now.