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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling party pushed through a school reform act on Friday that provoked brawls among parliamentarians and mass protests by secular Turks and teachers, who said the law was pushing an Islamic agenda and would lower education standards.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sent shudders through the secular opposition earlier this year when he said his goal was to raise a "religious youth." Earlier this month, his AK Party sprang the surprise proposal to overhaul the education system.
Education has been one of the main battlegrounds between religious conservatives - who form the bedrock of AKP support - and secularists since soldier statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923.
Believing that religion was holding back Turkey, one of Ataturk's first acts was to close madrasas, religious schools. Admirers of Ataturk say the AK Party is rolling back policies hurtful to pious Muslims.
The changes approved on Friday included measures that will allow schools specialising in religious education combined with a modern curriculum, known as imam hatip schools, to take boys and girls from the age of 11 instead of 15, and to provide optional classes in Koranic studies and the life of the Prophet Mohammad in other schools.
The law stipulates that children should complete 12 years schooling, though critics say the overall quality of education will suffer as parents have the option of putting their children into technical colleges grooming them for low-paid blue-collar and service industry jobs, like hairdressing for girls, from an early age.
Opposition anger over the bill boiled over when the AK Party steamrollered it through the committee stage, provoking brawls in parliament earlier this month.
Passage of the bill through the assembly was never in doubt, and it was carried by a vote of 295 to 91.
Critics have long accused the AKP of promoting religious conservatism by stealth, though Erdogan denies having an Islamist agenda.
Opponents fear he has become bolder since a commanding election victory last June secured him a third consecutive term.
Erdogan says the new law gives people what they want, unlike the previous education regime which alienated many conservative families who want their children to have more access to religious schooling.
Turkey's staunchly secular military had forced that legislation on the country's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, before forcing him from office in 1997, in what became known as the "post-modern coup". The military had overthrown three other governments between 1960 and 1980.
The AKP government has cut the military's power and influence using reforms meant to strengthen Turkey's democracy, and also weeded out judges in the senior judiciary who had backed the generals, many of whom are now in prison facing coup plot charges.
Erdogan says secular-minded families will not have to send their children to classes on religion.
"Nobody is forced (to attend)," Erdogan said on his return to Ankara from an overseas trip on Thursday as police unleashed tear gas and water cannon on protesters from a teaching union.
"Are people going to drag members of the labour union to those classes, punching and kicking? No. Are people going to drag kids into those classes? No."
Some teachers say that regardless of the debate over the place of religion in the classroom, education desperately needs massive investment in more classrooms and more teachers, as half the country's 74 million people are under the age of 28.
The quality of Turkey's education compares poorly with OECD averages, according to a World Bank study.
Editing by Tim Pearce