Turkey recently entered a new era in which it is facing up to its past. Military coups and unsolved incidents which were prevalent in the history of the Turkish Republic have been investigated one after another in recent years. Turkey has seen four military coups since 1960: May 27, 1960, March 12, 1971, Sept. 12, 1980, and Feb. 28, 1997, which is often dubbed the postmodern coup. This indicates the great influence the military has had in Turkish politics.
Apart from politics, this militaristic mentality was also reflected in the Turkish education system during each coup era. However, Turkey has in recent months been seeking to erase all traces of the military from education. The first demilitarization step in education was the abolishment in January of controversial national security courses given at schools, which had long been criticized for breeding an ideology of militarism in the public by indoctrinating students with the belief that there was an ongoing threat facing the country.
The national security course, the aim of which was officially defined as “to strengthen the national security consciousness, which naturally exists in all Turkish youth, in accordance with demands of war to honor and protect the Turkish Republic against all kinds of attacks under all circumstances,” was found to be among the most problematic elements in the Turkish school curriculum. National security lessons were given by military officers coming to classrooms in military uniforms and treating the students as though they were soldiers.
After this step towards normalization and demilitarization, the Ministry of Education issued a circular early this year to cancel the May 19 celebrations, which mark the anniversary of the beginning of the War of Independence, claiming that students were being negatively affected by the ceremonies. After practicing for days, high school students parade in military formations around stadiums across Turkey to celebrate May 19, Atatürk Commemoration and Youth and Sports Day. However, a recent ruling by the Council of State placed a stay of execution on a prime ministerial decree that forbade the celebration of May 19 ceremonies in stadiums. Following the ruling of the Council of State, the Ministry of Education issued another circular on Thursday, which stated that celebrations of national holidays, including April 23, Aug. 30 and Oct. 29, would from now on be held in city squares to increase more public participation.
Despite all these efforts, most educators and journalists say that these efforts are not sufficient because some traces of military dominance still exist in the education system.
Star daily columnist Bekir Berat Özipek told Sunday’s Zaman that the recent strides the Ministry of Education has taken are important, but they are not sufficient. “Ideological content created during the single-party period [when the Republican People’s Party (CHP) ruled for 24 years from 1926-1950] still exists in the Turkish education system. The main law on which Turkish education is based, the Law on the Unification of Education [Tevhid-i Tedrisat], has some totalitarian characteristics which impede diversity and pluralism. Turkey has seen democratization in numerous fields in recent years, but education has been the least affected,” Özipek noted.
Stating that Turkish education should not take its basis from the indoctrination of Kemalist or any other specific ideology, Özipek further stated that Kurdish and other ethnic communities should be given the rights to have education in their mother tongue and asked: “How many democratic countries which ban the establishment of schools giving religious education are there apart from Turkey in the world? And why is the Halki Seminary [closed in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece and a crackdown on religious education] still closed? If we want full normalization, we should change such things.”
Bugün daily columnist Gülay Göktürk also spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, agreeing that despite improvements, Turkey needs to make further efforts and developments to remove the militaristic mentality which has influenced Turkey’s education system since the early years of the Turkish Republic. Göktürk further added that education should not be a system which is only provided by the state; education should be left to nongovernmental organizations for full demilitarization.
Democratic Educators’ Union (DES) Chairman Gürkan Avcı said: “The current pledge that starts with ‘I am a Turk’ includes some discriminative references, but we should not teach students discriminative ideas but more uniting values. We don’t insist that the pledge be removed completely but its content should be changed according to today’s conditions. Maybe each school could have its own pledge because the goals and aims of each might be different from each other.”
On the topic of the May 19 celebrations, Avcı said the decision of the Ministry of Education to change the celebrations was right because students had to perform outdated militaristic ceremonies. “Students began practicing months before the arrival May 19 to be able to perform precise movements for ceremonies that were affecting students’ education negatively.”
Avcı further added that the dress code in schools is also a result of a militaristic mentality, so the dress code should also be changed. “School uniforms should be removed; students should wear civilian clothes,” Avcı noted.
Education Personnel Labor Union (Eğitim Bir-Sen) Secretary-General Ahmet Özer also told Sunday’s Zaman that militarism survives in the pledge of allegiance, which students recite every day, so it should be removed as soon as possible and added Turkey needs to get rid of the militaristic and coup mentality and establish a more democratic education system instead.
Education Personnel Union (Eğitim-Sen) Chairman İsmail Koncuk is at odds with the other interviewees. Koncuk said the recent change in celebrations for May 19 was not right because it would devalue national days on which the struggle for Turkish independence is commemorated. “The aim of the Ministry of Education is to restrict celebration ceremonies inside schools and prevent the public from attending such ceremonies,” Koncuk noted. He also stated that he believes the pledge students make should not be removed.
When asked about the removal of national security courses in January, Koncuk said he did not believe it right to remove these courses completely because Turkey is a country with a security issue. “If they really wanted demilitarization, they could have just banned the access of military officers to such courses; these courses could have been given by civilian teachers instead,” Koncuk noted.