While aimed at boosting the chances of graduates from these schools gaining university places, the reforms have drawn fire from the country’s powerful military which fears the changes may undermine the very basis of the Turkish state.
“There are basic problems in education,” warned the General Staff’s Lieutenant General Ilker Basbug at a mid-October press conference. “We expect common sense to prevail.”
Others, however, see the reforms as necessary to remove discrimination against children with a religious education.
The controversy started when the liberal, pro-Islamist government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan introduced new proposals on university entrance exams.
Currently, these nationwide tests are weighted so that graduates from technical, training and professional high schools need higher points to pass than graduates from normal high schools.
This has meant that graduates from the country’s training schools for religious officials - known as Imam Hatips - are also discriminated against in the entrance exam. The government proposal aims to end this by treating the Imam Hatips in the same way as ordinary high schools.
Premier Erdogan proposes
changes to university entrance
“They have proposed giving our rights back,” says Mehmet Emin Parlakturk of the Turkish Imam Hatip Graduates Foundation, “by reclassifying the schools as high schools.”
Yet, opponents see this as an attempt by the government to open universities to more Islamist students - and thus change the country’s entire political face.
“In these schools,” says columnist Deniz Som of the staunchly secular daily Cumhuriyet, “the kids are being given an education in religion. Then, one day, they will take key positions in the government and state. This is their long-term plan. To take all these positions.”
It is a charge denied by Imam Hatip supporters and graduates among whom is the prime minister himself.
“I am an Imam Hatip graduate,” Erdogan told reporters recently. “Those who say that graduates from these schools are causing trouble are insulting. I am not causing trouble, but serving my country.”
The controversy goes back to the very origins of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s. The Imam Hatips were established to train religious leaders after the new, secular state had closed down all the country’s madrasas, or Islamic schools.
A French-style high school system in which religious activity of any kind was banned from the classroom, was then introduced for all Turkish children.
“The Imam Hatips have become popular precisely because there has been no possibility of worship in normal schools,” says Nuray Mert, an influential columnist for the secular liberal daily, Radikal. “You can’t even utter a prayer in a normal school.”
As a result, many religious parents have chosen to send their kids to Imam Hatips - even though they may not want them to become either Imams, or Hatips.
“Other state and professional schools do not answer the people’s demands,” says Parlaturk. “In these other schools, there hasn’t been enough religious and moral education. Imam Hatip graduates have a great advantage because of this. They are hard working and well behaved.”
In 1997, the Turkish military
engineered a "soft" coup
The Imam Hatips offer a normal high school education, but with additional classes in religious instruction.
“Our curriculum is exactly that determined by the education ministry,” says Huseyin Avni Erdemir, a teacher from Konya Central Imam Hatip High School in central Turkey. “About 45% of the classes have a religious training aspect, the other 55% are cultural. We prepare students both professionally [to become Imams and Hatips] and to go on to higher education.”
Imam Hatips booming
The number of Imam Hatip schools climbed from about 20 in the 1930s to 561 by 1995. By 1996 nearly half a million teenagers had graduated from them, making the Imam Hatips a major part of Turkey’s education system.
But they have also come to be seen as a major threat by the country’s secular establishment.
In 1997, the powerful military forced the then pro-Islamist government out of office in what became known as the “soft coup”. The issue the generals used to mobilise secularists was the growth of the Imam Hatips.
Later, these schools were reclassified as technical and professional, meaning that graduates faced an uphill struggle to pass the university entrance exam.
"The numbers of enrolments went down after that,” concedes Parlaturk. “The Imam Hatip graduates were portrayed in some media as criminals, fundamentalists. There was a great deal of discrimination against us in both public and private sectors.”
Yet recently, things have changed. “An upward trend in enrolments is now taking place,” says Erdemir. “More parents have been coming forward to enrol their kids as they see what exceptional schools we are.”
“Whenever the army says they are doing something wrong, the government puts on the brakes”
However, this growth - and the government’s efforts to reclassify Imam Hatips as ordinary high schools - have refocussed attention on them.
“Many people would like to know why there are so many Imam Hatips,” says Mert. The schools also accept female students, despite the Islamic prohibition on women becoming Imams or Hatips.
“The governing party has raised this issue now because they are worried at a loss of blood from their own natural constituency,” the teachers' union, Egitim-Sen, said in a statement to the press on 18 October. “The aim is to refill the Imam Hatip schools with future supporters.”
The union also sees a wider context for the government’s present preoccupation with Imam Hatips. “They are doing this now to divert attention from the fact that they are sending troops to Iraq - a move unpopular with their religious-minded grass roots.”
Education Minister Cemil Celik told reporters soon after Lt General Basbug’s warning that the law reclassifying the schools had now been passed back to a sub-committee for further discussion. However, he said the law would be in place by the time the country’s school kids sat the 2004 university entrance exam.
“Whenever the army says they are doing something wrong,” commented opposition deputy Mustafa Ozyurt on 17 October, “the government puts on the brakes.”
With Prime Minister Erdogan’s predecessors ejected from office by the military over this very issue, his caution comes as no surprise.