İmam-hatip schools are at the heart of recent debates about changes to the education system as part of a new education reform package, popularly known as 4+4+4 -- four years of primary, middle and high school -- which lowers the school starting age to 60 months plus, from a previous 72 months plus.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been under fire by critics who claim that the government is trying to de-secularize Turkey’s education system by making it possible for imam-hatip schools, previously shut down during the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup, to open secondary schools.
The perceptions of imam-hatip schools across Turkey are deeply divided.
Experts warn that the possible increase in the number of imam-hatip schools as a result of the new education system is not in line with people’s expectations and described it as a “top-down” process. Critics note that with the new education system, there seems to be revenge being taken for imam-hatip schools that were shut down en masse in 1997 through the wave of openings of these new schools.
On the other hand, a recent survey conducted by the Turkey İmam-Hatip Alumni Foundation (TİMAV), revealed that the majority of Turks hold positive views about imam-hatip schools. The survey, titled “Perception of İmam-Hatip High Schools and İmam-Hatip Students in Turkey,” was conducted between April 24 and May 18 with 2,689 people in 26 provinces. Most of the respondents were not imam-hatip graduates.
Currently, 541 international students from countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Senegal are being educated in imam-hatip schools. An additional 180 international students will be enrolled in those schools, which initiated the opening of an international imam-hatip school in Konya.
The General Directorate of Religious Education and the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation kicked off a project in September 2007 that made it possible for international students to be educated in imam-hatip schools. The project also helps develop cultural and educational collaboration between their home countries and Turkey.
Associate Professor Mahmut Zengin from Sakarya University’s divinity school stated that the opening of international imam-hatip schools should be considered in a historic context. “In addition to being a modernized version of madrasahs, imam-hatip schools are also means of maintaining traditions stemming from Ottoman times. People from various cultures and ethnicities used to be trained in Ottoman madrasahs. Therefore, the international imam-hatip schools can be regarded as the new model of those educational facilities,” Zengin said.
According to Zengin, the international imam-hatip schools can contribute to international and political relationships between Turkey and other countries. “The number of imam-hatip schools might increase or decrease according to peoples’ demand but Turkey has to wait at least a year or two to see the results of the new education system. Hence, the number of imam-hatip schools which will accept international students will not be stable and so we may expect changes,” Zengin added.
International students who study at Turkey’s imam-hatip schools are mostly from the Turkic republics, the Balkan countries, Ukraine’s Crimea region, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) and some Muslim nations in Africa. The students mostly study at imam-hatip schools in İstanbul and in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri.
A Turkish university professor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the opening of international imam-hatip schools is a positive development for promoting international dialogue between Turkey and other countries.
“Ten years ago, a similar practice was started in divinity schools for international students aiming for BA degrees. Special preparation classes teaching Turkish were compulsory for these students. We can thus consider international imam-hatip schools as another version of the divinity school program for international students,” the professor added.
The professor, however, criticized the sudden changes in the education system with respect to imam-hatip schools, adding that the government and the Ministry of Education should have consulted with more experts.
He argued that the new education system made it seem as though the government was forcing people to adjust to this system immediately. “The experts should be careful about the new curriculum and implementing it in the international imam-hatip schools as well,” the same professor said.