A new law allowing parents to send their children to Islamic schools at an earlier age has polarized Turkish society, write İrem Kök and Funda Üstek.
In February 2012, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his government’s desire to “raise a religious youth”. Religious freedom have gone through various phases in the history of modern Turkey: the country’s long-guarded secularism under the careful scrutiny of the military since the 1920s; the outright fortification of moderate Islam against the suppressed left after the 1980 military coup; attempts to combat Islamic politics during the 1990s and AKP’s gaining majority rule since 2002, constitute important milestones in the history of religion and politics in Turkey . However, Erdoğan’s remarks introduced a new debate about the idea of religiousness supported by a conservative government that is no longer shadowed by the military guardianship. His announcement generated an intense discussion regarding the position of other religious and non-religious minorities such as Alevis, Christians, Jews and atheists (for a lengthier analysis of religious education in Turkey, you can check the UNHCR report here).
Following the prime minister’s comment, criticisms were centered on the potential polarisation of the country over religious and non-religious lines. Kemal Kilicdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, known for being guardians of secularist ideals, called Erdoğan a “religion monger” for attempting to divide people into these two categories. In response, Erdoğan commented that, as a conservative democratic party, his government wants to “raise a generation that is conservative and democratic and embraces the values and historical principles of the nation”, but would not advocate an atheist generation. He also used the example of “inhalant-dependent street children” to illustrate his point that religious youth would embrace morals and values as opposed to a non-religious youth who would lack both morals and a purpose in life.