ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Osman, the 16-year-old son of an Istanbul central heating engineer, reckons he is at the ideal school - one where a quarter of the 40 hours he spends a week in class is dedicated to becoming a better Muslim.
He is a credit to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s goal of raising a more pious generation through school reform proposals to be debated in parliament next week. But the secular opposition is up in arms, even to the point of fisticuffs.
What is more, Osman goes to the same school Erdogan attended as a boy, the Imam Hatip High School in Fatih, a humble, conservative neighbourhood where the large numbers of Islamic beards and veils stand out.
The education minister went to the same school there too, as did the current mayor of Istanbul - who also belongs to Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The unremarkable five-storey dull pink block amid Fatih’s narrow lanes was one of the first Imam Hatip schools, founded in 1951, to teach future imams.
They subsequently evolved into institutions that offered parallel mainstream curricula, and graduates could earn admission to university. Privately funded by foundations these schools often have better facilities than state counterparts.
“It’s perfect,” says Osman, enjoying a chance to practice his English as he stands with half a dozen friends on the school dormitory steps.
“We learn everything here. We would learn the other subjects in a state school, but the religion part would be missing,” he said, smiling broadly beneath the thin wisps of a budding moustache, a common feature among imam hatip boys.
His friends expressed similar feelings. They wanted to become engineers, doctors - only one wanted to be an imam - but felt more comfortable learning in a religious setting.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the soldier statesman who founded the modern Turkish republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, believed religion was holding Turks back.
As a result of his secularist policy, Islam was kept out of classrooms and madrasas were closed. It was only with the advent of a multi-party system that imam hatips were opened.
Even today, Ataturk’s “Address to Youth”, a militaristic call to protect the country adorns the walls of state schools, and, whereas there are no morning prayers, primary school children still recite a patriotic pledge each day.
The pledge, coined in 1933, reads; “I am a Turk, honest, hardworking. My principles are to protect the younger, to respect the elder, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. May my life be dedicated to the Turkish existence.”
None of the boys spoken to at Erdogan’s old school talked about politics, though imam hatip old boys wield an extraordinary amount of influence, considering how small a minority they are in society.
Huseyin Korkut, president of the Association of Imam Hatip Graduates and Members (ONDER), an alumni group that Erdogan belongs to, said nearly 40 percent of cabinet ministers had attended imam hatip schools.
Yet, with roughly 300,000 pupils attending around 540 schools, less than 2 percent of Turkey’s 18 million school children go to these schools.
Earlier this month, Erdogan’s ruling AKP bulldozed a draft bill through a parliamentary commission that, among other things, will help imam hatip schools like Osman’s flourish by letting them take boys and girls from the age 11 instead of 15.
Given the AKP’s majority, it will almost certainly be passed by parliament’s general assembly.
Though the AKP bill stipulates that children should complete a total of 12 years education, up to the age of 18, critics say the changes will not address the fundamental issue of quality.
Everyone agrees on the need for change. Despite advances made in school attendance levels in the past 15 years, a World Bank study in 2010 showed only 16 percent of the 15-year-olds in Turkey attend schools with average reading, maths or science test scores that are comparable to or above an OECD average.
When the TUSIAD industrialists group weighed in on the controversy by doubting whether the draft legislation would produce a “well-educated, pluralist, liberal society”, Erdogan told it to mind its own business.
The AKP did drop some of its most contentious proposals from the initial draft, notably a provision allowing parents to withdraw their children from school at the age of 11 so they could opt for distance learning from home.
Critics said it would have harmed girls’ education, particularly, and potentially lead to more child marriages in backward, traditional communities in Turkey.
Removal of the home learning option has left opponents’ anger focused on the provision that allows parents to put children in vocational schools at the age of 11.
While imam hatip schools fall in this category, so do technical schools providing classes in car maintenance, child care, hairdressing and the like. Critics say it is too early for children to be making career choices with lowly aspirations.
“It’s obvious that AKP’s core motive with this draft is to boost the number of imam hatip schools and students, in line with Erdogan’s desire to raise pious generations,” Mehmet Bozgeyik, general-secretary of the Education and Science Workers’ Union told Reuters.
In February, Erdogan sent shudders through secularists by declaring: “We want to raise a religious youth”.
Turkey, a Muslim country of 74 million, is politically polarised over the place religion should hold in society and the state, and some of the fiercest battles between the two camps have been fought over education policy.
Indeed, the bill is designed to erase a piece of legislation that is hated by the AKP - the Compulsory Education Act of 1997. That act made it mandatory for children to attend 8 years of continuous schooling, in a state system devoid of religion.
On February 28, 1997, a military that had overthrown three governments since 1960, launched what became known as Turkey’s “post-modern coup, to press Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to quit.
One of the measures foisted on Erbakan that day was the closure of imam hatip school classes for children under 15. The number of pupils at these schools subsequently fell from around 600,000 to less than 60,000 in the following years.
Speaking on the 15th anniversary of the “post-modern coup”, Erdogan, who had been a rising star in Erbakan’s party before it was banned, railed against what some called social engineering. “Those who made the February 28 changes to prevent Turkish youth from receiving religious education have greatly harmed Turkish students,” Erdogan said to waves of applause from party loyalists. “Education is no longer the guinea pig of certain segments in society.”
Already in power for a decade, the AKP has never been stronger. Erdogan won a third term in an election last year that saw him take 50 percent of the vote.
Judges and generals who once stood guard over the republic’s secular traditions have been either retired, been fired or, in the case of some generals, imprisoned on charges of plotting against the government. Police have also gone after secular educationists on similar grounds.
“They are trying to take revenge for 1997 and are abiding by their vow to abolish the Compulsory Education Law and turn back to religious education,” said one such educationalist living abroad, who still feared being identified in case it attracted the government’s wrath. “They feel that the time is now ripe.”
ONDER’s Korkut saw the bill giving people what they wanted, and expected imam hatip numbers to swell, driven by demand from conservative Turkish families dismayed over popular culture’s erosion of traditional values.
“I think the problem is that Turkey is moving towards social degeneration, moving away from her own values,” Korkut said. “For example, Turkish television serials are broadcast in many Middle Eastern countries. But there are no references to religion in these television shows.”
Political opponents fear a manifold increase in imam hatip numbers will deepen the foundations of the AK support base for years to come and sharpen divisions in Turkish society.
“Never in Turkey’s history has there been a government which promotes or incites polarisation of the society as much as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s,” Engin Ozkoc, a lawmaker from the People’s Republican Party (CHP), told Reuters.
During the commission hearings, Ozkoc, angry at the lack of public discourse over the bill, spoke in opposition for 12 hours non-stop, except for grudgingly granted bathroom breaks.
Faced with an obstructive opposition, AKP members on March 11 resorted to packing the small room where the commission hearings were held so that no CHP members could attend.
During the ensuing fracas, one news photographer caught a burly parliamentarian, with a hand at his throat, landing a punch on a rival’s chin. Inside the room, AKP members gave the go-ahead for the bill to be sent to the assembly for debate.
“Parliament has become a notary for the prime minister’s office,” the CHP said in a statement the next day.
Additional reporting by Can Sezer and Ece Toksabay