EXPERT OPINION: Naturally selecting jihad over evolution... How Turkey’s education system is being politicised

Dr Ali Bilgic, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, discusses the recent news that the theory of evolution is gone from school biology textbooks in Turkey.

English naturalist, geologist and biologist, Charles Darwin

Turkey has recently been in the spotlight of the global media for an unlikely reason: changes in the education system, which has been interpreted as a new victory of the political Islamist segment of politics against the secular state of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Needless to say, the word ‘jihad’, which was introduced to the curriculum of religion classes, has become the hotspot of the discussions.

Does this dichotomist and simplistic understanding between political Islamists and the secular establishment (or whatever is left of it) in Turkey really grasp the issue?

Are the Islamists finally taking over the secular state by transforming the education system, which has been the founding pillar of engendering secular citizens?

Political Islam has never been a competitor of the secular state in Turkey; rather, the secular state has politicised Islam in order to oppress and marginalise the left, Alevi (Shia) minority, and Kurdish separatism.

Political Islamists have long been the friend of the state in Turkey. That is why the political Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP) has successfully been governing the secular state since 2002 by destroying other competitive forces, such as the military.

Society in Turkey has long been the subject of Islamisation by the secular state, particularly since the 1980 coup. The field of education is the story of this trajectory.

If Turkey moved away from Ataturk’s ideals in education, it was when the Republican Peoples Party (RPP, established by Ataturk) founded the Imam Hatip schools (vocational schools to train ministers and preachers) in 1948 and the Faculty of Theology at Ankara University in 1949.

This was the secular state’s move to control religious education, which had been abolished during the Ataturk period. In fact, Sunni Islam had been put under the control of the secular state in 1924 with the establishment of the Presidency of Religious Affairs.

It made its way into the education though Imam Hatips.

It must be noted that this was the beginning of the Cold War, and the Turkish policy-makers (first, RPP, and then the Democrat Party, DP) were learning how to use religion against the godless ‘red menace’ from the USA.

In the 1960s and 70s, the left was on the rise in Turkey, which eventually led to the 1980 coup. This was a turning point in the transformation of the education system.

With the objective of removing any possibility for the left to make a return, and suppressing Kurdish separatism, the secular, ‘Ataturkist’ junta and political parties introduced the ideology of Turkish-Islamist synthesis to the education system in totality.

The objective was to train generations with the principles of Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islam. The numbers of Imam Hatip Schools have soared since 1980. Universities, which had been the homes of left activism and Kurdish movements, were put under the scrutiny of the state.

The Islamisation of society finally paid off. The vacuum created by the violent oppression of the left was filled by the political Islamists.

As political Islamists became a potential competitor for state power, the secular establishment conducted the post-modern coup against the Welfare Party (WP), which came to power in the 1995 elections.

At first glance, the 1997 coup appeared as the secular state’s reaction to the Islamisation of education: Imam Hatip schools were not closed, but the possibility for their graduates to find a way into universities was obscured, the headscarf ban was implemented, and a strong Ataturkist cult dominated the school system.

Make no mistake: the measures of the establishment were against a competitor for power, not against the Islamisation of the society. All principles of the Turkish-Islamist synthesis remained intact.

When the JDP came to power, it was familiar with the secular state’s institutions. Finally, political Islamists were not in the back seat, but in the steering wheel of the secular state.

This meant being in control of Sunni Islam. Since the military and judiciary have lost their positions, different fractions in Sunni Islam have been in competition to get the steering wheel of the secular state.

There is nothing surprising if evolution has been removed from the education system in Turkey and jihad has been introduced.

These are natural consequences of the long-term Islamisation of society by the secular state, whose main objective has been the oppression of the left, Alevis, and Kurdish movements. Political Islamists have continued this practice with a precision that can only be gained through familiarity.

Does the West not like what is happening in Turkey? Well, it has been sitting next to the driver, whoever that was.