All of Turkey's major political problems today are the consequence of the forced imposition in accordance with the “founding philosophy” of the republic, that is Kemalism, of a uniform identity onto a religiously and ethnically heterogeneous society.
The single-party regime during the second quarter of the 20th century was established with that purpose. Bureaucratic tutelage over multi-party politics and the political role of the military into the 21st century served the same aim. This was why the state monopolized religious affairs, religious freedoms were substantially restricted, Sufi brotherhoods were banned and even the existence of Alevis (the largest religious minority) was denied. This was why policies were pursued to create a society where all spoke Turkish, followed Turkish culture and shared official Islam represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs established in 1924. This was why the state monopolized the educational system with the “unification of education” law enacted that same year.
The endeavor to impose this Kemalist straitjacket is neither acceptable to a society increasingly conscious of its rights nor is it compatible with the requirements of a liberal and pluralistic regime, which is the only way of securing the integrity and wellbeing of the country, or with “contemporary civilization,” which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk actually said he wanted Turkey to catch up with.
Last week the public debate in Turkey focused on a sweeping educational reform bill put forward by a group of deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), apparently without consulting let alone the opposition parties but even the minister of education. The proposed reform in its original form stipulated, in the main, the extension of compulsory education from eight years to 12 while breaking it down into three levels, allowing for transfers to optional tracks of distance or vocational education. The optional tracks are to include prayer leader and preacher (imam-hatip) middle schools providing a higher dose of religious education than formal ones, often preferred by conservative families. The middle-level imam - hatip schools were closed down in the wake of the postmodern military coup of 1997 as part of measures against “religious fundamentalism.”
The idea of extending compulsory education to 12 years was generally welcomed, but it was rightly pointed out by various circles that the bill was in conflict with the requirements of a contemporary education system and would direct many students to vocational education at an early age (thereby constraining social mobility) as well as that many girls would move away from formal education to distance learning at home. The bill is currently being deliberated and partly revised in Parliament. It is, however, regrettable that few taking part in public, let alone parliamentary, debates have pointed to the fact that Turkey's major educational problems today are a consequence of the “unification of education” law of 1924, still in force as part of the “revolutionary laws” of the republic.
An educational reform that meets the demands of the people and the requirements of a liberal and pluralistic democracy has to be based on the following principles: It is necessary that education of the clergy be turned over to the various religious communities and that the state monopoly in this field is abandoned. In line with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, courses on religion (under state supervision) should be optional instead of compulsory. In line with the European Convention on Human Rights, parents -- and not the state -- should decide what sort of religious education their children are to be provided in those courses. The state should provide financial assistance per student to all schools irrespective of public or private status. All restrictions that conflict with freedom of religion, including the headscarf ban in schools, should be lifted. To continue to support this anti-democratic ban while at the same time complaining about the low schooling rate among girls is sheer hypocrisy.
It is clear, in the broader context, that a liberal and pluralistic democracy requires before anything else the separation of state and religion. Islam as understood by the Directorate of Religious Affairs should cease to be the unofficial state religion, and that institution should acquire autonomous status. In short, the adoption of a liberal kind of secularism instead of the current authoritarian system is imperative for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. It is unclear, however, to what extent the governing party -- let alone the (Kemalist) opposition parties -- stands for such consolidation.