[Edited version of a talk presented by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, to the Separation of School and State Alliance at their annual convention in Colorado Springs on November 14, 1998]

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

The problems of secularized education in Turkey are instructive for Americans, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, or people of any faith. The same forces that are destroying education in America are at work in Turkey, but there they are brazen and open, not beneath the surface hiding under a pretense that their concern is schooling for the poor or some ill-defined notion of "public accountability."

After Turkey lost the First World War, military leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took over the country and forcibly imposed his vision of a secularized and statist nation on what had been a highly religious society and center of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk wished to secularize the 99% Muslim country following the French enlightenment model: secularism not as separation of church and state but as the complete elimination of religion from public life. He was not concerned with free exercise of religion. He was obsessed by the belief that Turkey's backwardness was due to religion. His premise was that the restriction of religious practice to a private activity would bring Turkey into the 20th century. This required systematic control of schools in order to effect a process of de-education: to erase Turkey's Islamic history from the consciousness of the people. For example, the Arabic script was abolished, putatively to allow easier learning of European languages; it's actual effect was to remove familiarity with Islam's holy book, the Qur'an which is read in the original Arabic.

Ataturk's first act after the declaration of the republic in 1923 was to change the educational system. On March 3, 1924, the same day that the Caliphate was abolished, the general assembly passed laws which undermined the legality of religious foundations and banned all private schools. Law #429 replaced the Ministry of Religious Foundations with a "Presidency of Religious Affairs" appointed by the President and under the direct control of the government. In contrast to the American concept of separation of church and state, which protects religion from government control, this law placed the religious jurisconsultants under control of the government. Law 430 on "the Unification of Education" placed all education establishments in Turkey under the Ministry of Education, and thus under the administration, supervision and control of the central government. The religious schools steadily lost students under state-control and in 1933 they were completely closed.

Religiosity went underground. While many Turks did lose their faith (an example is given in my book Islam and the Discovery of Freedom) many others simply feigned a loss of faith. (On my first visit to Turkey a student told me that he did not let his professors know that he prayed five times a day because he wanted to get a job after he graduated.) Political Science Quarterly summarizes the situation thus: "[E]ducation in public schools was to be strictly secular and focused on the pre-Islamic (pre-Ottoman) Turkish past; outward displays of religious faith were prohibited. By the mid to late 1990s, however, many of these Kemalist assumptions about modern Turkey's relationship with its Islamic heritage and Ottoman past appear to be undergoing a systematic series of challenges."

Beginning in the 1940's a move for democracy emerged in Turkey that lead to a new tolerance for religious education, though under state control. After the coup of 1980, the new government reorganized the school system as a means of distancing Turkish youth from Marxist and terrorist influences. The complete abolition of private schools was side-stepped by allowing religious schools starting at sixth grade which, although funded privately, had the "secular" part of their curriculum mandated by the state. The rationale for this exception to Turkey's militant secularism was to allow for the training of imams. With their independent religious curriculum, these schools allowed a new generation of Turks to get some value-oriented education. Their popularity was unanticipated but enormous, and students with no interest in becoming imams, even girls attended.

When, in 1995, the now semi-independently educated population gave first place in parliamentary elections to the religiously oriented "Refah" party, Turkey's secular elites were shaken and badly frightened. In 1996 Refah leader Necmettin Erbakan became prime minister and proposed mild reforms that would have moved Turkey from a French style secularism to an English style of secularism. For example, he wanted to remove the bans on beards and headscarves at the universities. The only proposal that libertarians would balk at was his desire to build some mosques at government expense, as in the case of English churches. The elites, especially in the military, savagely denounced his program. Turkey's National Security Council labeled the Islamic middle schools "a breeding ground for religious fundamentalists." They gave Erbakan an ultimatum to force through their agenda to undo the educational reforms that had allowed a modicum of privatization and freedom and to shut down the religious schools.[1]

Some 300,000 people demonstrated in Istanbul against the military's interference in civil affairs. The armed forces declared "their readiness to use force against Islamic groups and a week later Erbakan resigned. Mesut Yilmaz of the conservative Motherland Party became prime minister and proceded with plans to shut down the schools and control the textbooks. He was undeterred by the 100,000 people that flooded the streets of Ankara in August to protest the generals' demands that "the number of Islamic schools be limited and existing schools placed under the control of the education ministry." He paid back the military for securing him his prime ministership by obtaining passage of a restructure of the educational system designed by the National Security Agency.

In August 1997, on a 277 to 242 vote, the Turkish parliament passed the law increasing mandatory attendance at government schools from five years to eight, thus assuring the closure of competing religious schools. The law also introduced new provisional taxes (to be levied until the end of 2000) to finance the move from private funding. Police water cannon and batons dispersed protesters and over 100 people were arrested in Istanbul and in other demonstrations around the country. Former prime minister Erbakan described the bill as "a product of a fascist secular understanding challenging the people's will." According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Turkish Army issued a report justifying the crackdown on the grounds "that religious education, in its current form, was moving to train a specific type of person `as a voter and administrator of the future.'" The law (also opposed by Erbakan's secular political ally, former prime minister Tansu Ciller) allowed students currently enrolled in religious schools to complete their education but prohibited schools from accepting new students.

Yilmaz declared: "I will not condone religious academies that train warriors for the Welfare Party. These academies exist to educate intellectual clergy for our secular republic. {In no way are we restricting freedom of religion, freedom of worship or the right to learn about religion.} We are simply opposing those who want to use religion for political purposes." Note how the phrase "warriors for the Welfare party" is used as a derogatory epithet for graduates of religious schools who become active in politics or business [2] rather than confine themselves to the mosque.

The desire to eliminate religion from public life is undisguised in Turkey. Some misguided Christians think that Turkish actions against Christian religious activity unaware that is not part if an "Islamist" agenda, but part of Turkey's "secularist" agenda. What is happening noisily in Turkey is happening quietly in America. We must separate school and state now, before secular radicals complete the transformation of benign American secularism into the malignant form conceived in France and practiced in Turkey.



[1] "On 28 February 1997, the Turkish Armed Forces openly moved into politics through the National Security Council--on which the country's top generals sit ex officio--which ordered Erbakan's government to implement an eighteen-point plan to curb Islamic political and social movements in the country. The plan calls for (a) full implementation of the "Uniformity of Education" law, including the closure of many of the Qur'anic schools and the Imam Hatip schools; (b) making "antisecular acts" against the state illegal; (c) ending the recruitment of Islamists into government jobs; and (d) close surveillance of the economic activities of the Islamic groups. Next, in February 1997, the military released a list of some hundred corporations with which it would have no dealings in the future and which were to come under investigation as financial supporters of the Islamic movements. These corporations, many of which are in the forefront of the drive to promote Turkish exports, include the Ülker food processing giant, the IHLAS holding corporation, and the thirty-six-company Kombassan cooperative. The army went on to list 19 newspapers, 20 national television stations, 51 radio stations, 110 magazines, and 1,200 student fraternities as engaging in `subversive Islamic activities'" (Yavuz, 1997).

[2] "The dynamic private sector known as "Anatolian tigers" and emerging new economic centers eroded the economic base of secularism, and, as of the mid-1980s, local businessmen's groups began springing up all over Turkey. The most prominent of these, the Association of Independent Businessmen (MUSIAD), representing pro-Islamist, small and medium-size businesses in forty-five towns, openly aspired to act as a counterweight to the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAD) comprising a number of business conglomerates seen as benefiting from the state's favoritism. Moreover, segments of the new mainly Anatolian bourgeoisie used its wealth to promote ties with the broader Islamic world, often in symbolic terms associated with capitalist consumption. This has included sales campaigns promising donations to Muslim charities working in Bosnia, Chechnya, and even Algeria. In the increasingly polarized society that is Turkey today, the purchase of certain brands, such as Ülker food products, has come to be a political statement" (Yavuz 1997).





AFP, "Turkish Parliament Passes Controversial Education Bill," Middle East Times #34 1997 8/24/97 (11/14/98).

Tore Kjeilen, "Turkey: Economy," Encyclopedia of the Orient. 9/23/98 <> (11/14/98).

Dane Kusic, "Politics, Religious Education, Media, and Music in Twentieth Century Turkey," 10/3/97 <

chapter6.html> (11/14/98).

David Swanson, "Secular Turkey Teeters Over Plan to Close Islamic Schools," Christian Science Monitor 1997. 6/12/97 <

maillist-archives/thrace/tl31/msg00083.html> (11/14/98).

Stephen Kinzer, "Islam and Liberty: Struggles in Turkey and Iran," New York Times (6/23/97).

Stephen Kinzer, "Turkish Leader Gets Way on Schools," International Herald Tribune (8/18/97).

Ben Lombardi, "Turkey-The Return of the Reluctant Generals?" Political Science Quarterly v. 112 #2.

NY Times, "Outlawing Islam," New York Times (6/19/97).

M. Hakan Yavuz, "Turkish-Israeli Relations Through The Lens of the Turkish Identity Debate," J. Palestine Studies, v. 27 #1 (Autumn 1997) Issue 105, 22-38.