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In Turkey’s New Curriculum, Ataturk, Darwin and Jihad Get Face-Lifts

By Dan Bilefsky

September 18, 2017

When high school students in Turkey arrive for the fall term, Charles Darwin will be conspicuously absent from biology classes.

In elementary school religion classes, teachers will promote the nonviolent meaning of the word jihad — “to struggle” — as “love of homeland.”

And, perhaps most significantly in a country where the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who created the modern secular Turkish state in 1923, is plastered everywhere, references in schools to Ataturk are expected to be downgraded.

In a majority Muslim country that has long been polarized between the religious majority and a minority of secular elites, critics said the overhaul of more than 170 curriculum topics by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan represented a frontal assault on the country’s already fragile tradition of secularism.

The changes come at a tense time for relations between Turkey and its Western allies following Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on his opponents in the aftermath of last year’s failed military coup, which the new curriculum lauds as “a legendary, heroic story.”

“This is no less than a revolution to alter public education and assure that a conservative, religious view of the world prevails,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.”

“The reason Turkey is not Pakistan is that generations have been exposed to a secular public education,” Mr. Cagaptay said. “But for Erdogan, who comes from the other side of the tracks and feels religion was marginalized for decades, this is his revenge.”

Politicians across the political spectrum criticized the changes. When they were first highlighted this summer, a leading teachers union called them an effort to stymie the raising of “generations who ask questions.”

Turkey’s education system, which has long provided a secular education to religious and secular students alike, has come under scrutiny by the government following the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, culminating in the firing of more than 33,000 teachers and the closing of scores of schools. At the same time, the ruling Islamic-inspired Justice and Development Party has significantly increased the number of religious schools, known as imam hatip schools, and promoted Mr. Erdogan’s professed goal of raising a “pious generation” of Turks.

Following the new changes, evolutionary concepts like natural selection will be removed from the high school curriculum, along with any mention of Darwin, the English naturalist whose theory has become a mainstay of biology classes around the world.

The education minister, Ismet Yilmaz, has praised the overhaul of the country’s curriculum as a necessary corrective that emphasizes a values-based education. Evolutionary biology, he had insisted, is too difficult for high schoolers to grasp and will be taught instead at the university level.

Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s supporters note that debates over the teaching of evolution are hardly unique to Turkey, and have raged in other countries, including the United States. The theory of evolution is rejected by both Christian and Muslim creationists alike, who credit God with creating the planet and its creatures. Many religious conservatives in Turkey dismiss evolution as a reckless and unproven theory.

Evolution aside, the new curriculum has deeply angered secularists who say it underplays Ataturk’s contribution to modern Turkey. At the primary school level, classes are expected to truncate the teaching of his leadership role during, among other events, Turkey’s war of independence, out of which the modern Turkish republic was created in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The curriculum is also notable for whom it includes among Turkey’s enemies, including the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States; the Islamic State; and Fethullah Gulen, an influential United States-based cleric whose supporters run a global network of schools which provide a secular education. Mr. Erdogan blamed Mr. Gulen for last year’s attempted coup.

Mr. Yilmaz said in a recent news conference that it was essential to educate the new generation of Turks about the perils of Mr. Gulen’s movement.

Among the curriculum’s changes, the notion of jihad has garnered particular attention. Defenders of teaching jihad as a love of homeland argue that it is a spiritual concept that has been erroneously co-opted by extremists and wrongly associated with terrorism, and that progressive Muslim groups have been using more peaceful interpretations of the concept for centuries.

But Mr. Cagaptay rejected that view, saying that while “jihad” had multiple meanings in Arabic, in the Turkish language it translated to violent and political struggle. Rebranding “jihad” in Turkey, he argued, was perilous given its connotation in a surrounding region where it was being used for violent ends. “Turkey’s neighbors are not Luxembourg or Belgium but the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, so it is risky to promote jihad because of the region Turkey is in and the rising jihadist recruitment trend globally.”

While critics have challenged the latest changes to the curriculum, a report last year by Impact-se, a Jerusalem-based research institute that analyzed 117 school text books in Turkey, concluded that the curriculum taught human rights, and was open to Darwin, gender equality, the protection of the environment, compassion toward AIDS patients and openness toward various lifestyles. “Turkish school students are currently taught to value Western civilization,” the report said.

But Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, the author of the report, said the new changes showed, “Turkey is changing its direction and is no longer, by default, a Western state.”

Education is just the latest area where the simmering culture war between Islam and secularism in Turkey has been laid bare.

When Mr. Erdogan came to power in 2002, he vowed to improve the status of the religious majority of Turkey, who had been suppressed by the ruling secular elite, and the prohibition of head scarves at universities was lifted in 2011. That was extended to state offices in 2013, and this year, the scrapping of the ban was extended to the army, long seen as the final safeguard of the country’s vaunted secularism.