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.