Massive uproar in Turkey over the government’s role in religious education shows that despite fears the nation is on the verge of abandoning its secular past, a version of secularism has actually gained traction in Turkey, even among pro-Islamic conservative elites.
The controversy began last month when an opposition deputy from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) filed a lawsuit against a new regulation aiming to level the playing field for students of the Turkish imam-hatip schools (a type of secondary school with a religious curriculum along with the standard curriculum) in university exams. Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan -- an imam-hatip graduate -- responded to the lawsuit on Jan. 31, stating that his government wants to “raise a religious youth.” Within a week, Turkish secularists and conservatives alike had hurled a barrage of criticism at the prime minister, accusing him of abandoning secularism and dangerously meddling with religion.
For secularists, Erdoğan’s statement was a revelation of his true colors. The leader of the CHP called him a “religion-monger,” and the staunchly secular teachers union Eğitim-Sen claimed Erdoğan had, for the first time, publicly admitted his hidden agenda. Criticism also proved rampant in academic circles, which put forth a petition within 24 hours of Erdoğan’s statement. Signed by over 2,000 individuals, it reads: “[O]f Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi’i, religious and nonreligious, atheist and agnostic backgrounds, all joined with a firm belief in secularism, [we] find your recent remarks about raising a religious and conservative youth most alarming and dangerous.”
Disturbed, liberals accused Erdoğan of ignoring popular demands for democratic pluralism and freedom of conscience. As one prominent commentator asked in the secular daily Milliyet, “What can I do if I don’t want my child to be raised as religious and conservative?” Liberals argue that a state policy to raise a religious youth is undemocratic as well as impractical because millions of Turkish people have for decades embraced a secular lifestyle. Some even worried that “the race for piety will be [Turkey’s] end,” as journalist Mehmet Ali Birand articulated in Hürriyet...
...This secular consensus in Turkey’s public sphere forced Erdoğan to make a rare political retreat. On Feb. 6, he accused critics of misinterpreting his statement and reaffirmed a commitment to liberty and democracy. He further asserted that his government would not impose any policy against the people’s wishes. Turks will continue to discuss what kind of secularism they want, but only a few will question if they want it; for the majority, the consensus is undeniable: The government’s role in religion should be limited.
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