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February 09, 2012, Thursday

Right and wrong

When the Turkish government recently announced it was scrapping national security lessons from the high-school curriculum, the move was welcomed as an important step toward eradicating the militarist ideology taught to generations of school children, which fuelled an aggressive nationalism and created internal social divisions.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who rarely misses an opportunity to engage in polemic, has unfortunately overshadowed this very positive step by expressing the wish to “bring up a religious generation,” a remark which, in Turkey’s polarized atmosphere, was inevitably interpreted by his secular opponents as an attempt to replace the Kemalist ideology with religion.

It may not be his intention at all, but his statement set the cat among the pigeons and reinforced political divisions. I found the prime minister’s response to his critics -- “Should we have a generation of tinerci [solvent sniffers] instead?” -- particularly revealing because in recent years, I have on several occasions come across conservative people in Turkey who were convinced that only the fear of God could keep people on the straight and narrow, and that, by extension, it was impossible to be a decent human being without being religious. Only recently, I had a long discussion with a woman I’ve known for years, who asked me about my beliefs. Being devout herself, she was horrified and downright confused when I told her I was not religious. “It is impossible, because you are a good person,” she stated categorically.

If it is wrong for arch-secularists to dismiss religious people as backward and uneducated, it is also a mistake to believe that notions of decency and justice can only flourish in a religious context. Many of the virtues held dear by religious people, such as honesty, generosity, compassion or dignity, are of equal importance to humanists of all stripes the world over, who may never have seen the inside of a church or a mosque.

Many people, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or adherents of other religions, rely on their faith to support and guide them through life, and they should be respected for it and allowed to practice it freely. But being an atheist or having a sense of spirituality without actually belonging to any of the world’s religious communities does not preclude having a conscience and strong principles, and wanting to treat others as one wants to be treated.

Conversely being taught religion in class hardly offers foolproof guarantee of “goodness.” As we all know, plenty of horrible deeds have been committed, and are still committed, under the cover of religion. The Vatican closed its eyes for decades to the grievous child abuse committed by many Catholic priests around the world, for example. Violent crimes, particularly against women, are also committed in the name of Islam by people who seem to have little of the sense of justice and compassion that their religion teaches.

Wanting to bring up young people with a solid sense of ethics and of respect for the rights of others, beyond the materialism that seems to prevail all over the world, is of course a worthy, and perfectly valid, goal to pursue. But it is not one that is best achieved by imposing a specific form of religion in class. Ultimately, since the best education is gained through learning from role models and adopting the best practices, applying values of tolerance, understanding and respect for the rights of other human beings, whatever their political views and their religious beliefs, or indeed absence thereof, to the political arena would be a good place to start.

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