Raising a “religious youth” in Turkey

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.

The case

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.

Author opinion

We believe the government’s top-down education program for raising religious youth is inherently flawed on various grounds. First and foremost, the aim of raising a youth with a certain mindset contradicts the very meaning of democracy, since the project aims to create one nation with only one perspective, hence not grant any choice to choose among multiplicity of perspectives for its people. Democracies call for open and civilised discussions of all viewpoints and do not aim to indoctrinate all the other opinions, depending on what is deemed to be the right one by the government.

Second, Turkey has already witnessed the discriminatory outcomes of compulsory religious education, which is largely informed by the Hanefi school of Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim students are exempt from these classes, whereas the same right (to be exempt from classes)is not granted to Alevis and non-believers on the grounds that the class is about “world civilisations” and not about religion. Having gone through the Turkish education system myself (Funda), I always believed excluding the Jewish and Christian students in our class, just created an “us versus them” attitude and implicitly gave them the feeling that they could never be in the “us” group. Third, we strongly believe that “everyone should be free to choose how to live their own lives, so long as it does not prevent others from doing the same” (see the introduction to P7). An attempt to raise a religious youth contradicts our ability to freely choose to believe or not believe in a religion, hence our basic human right: the right to believe. Fourth, the argument that being religious makes one moral, and being non-religious immoral, is a highly reductionist one that is far from the truth. What makes an individual moral is much more complex than this. And lastly, it is puzzling that Erdoğan, who continuously calls for secularisation in the other Islamic countries, especially the turmoil-laden Middle East, is openly favouring a particular religious perspective and announcing his desire to expand this mindset to the general Turkish youth.

Given the existing tensions between non-religiousness, belonging to a minority religious group and the majority Sunni Islam in Turkey, we believe that even the desire to “raise a religious youth” is problematic. Political parties might have certain views on religion, but even if they win sufficient votes to become the majority government in a country, this does not give them the right to turn their beliefs/opinions/perspectives into a social engineering project to make everyone the same.

- İrem Kök and Funda Üstek

Read more:

Comments (1)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. I think that when a Prime Minister, Turkish or of whatever country, says 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, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. To try to reason with such a person, to try to tell him that God doesn’t exist and that all the religious thought in the world is deadly negative for mankind, is useless.
    I think that sooner or later, the sooner the better, politicians and priests of all countries should be sent to life retirement, otherwise, our planet in their hands will have a short life.
    Who will take their position? Anyone, even a baboon will create a better place where to live.

Leave a comment in any language


Swipe left to browse all of the highlights.

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

The University of Oxford