|The Many Dimensions of Religious Instruction
Institutional education in general, and religious education
in particular, is highly centralized in Turkey. This approach
began with the Unity of Education Law, which was first drafted
in 1924 and preserved in subsequent legal reforms and constitutional
changes. Based on this law, all educational institutions,
including military and medical schools, were brought under
the control of the Ministry of Education. Additionally, all
traditional religious schools, or medreses, were abolished
and a divinity school was established to educate scholars
and experts in religious subjects. In addition, a certain
number of secondary level schools were opened to train personnel
for religious services in society.
In order to understand why such a law was considered necessary,
one must first look at the state of educational institutions
of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There were mainly four kinds of educational institutions in
the Empire. These included medreses, mekteps, minority
schools, and foreign (missionary) schools. Medreses
were the places where traditional religious sciences were
studied. They were the most common among the schools, but
also the most resilient towards modern developments. Mekteps,
on the other hand, were established by the Ottoman State and
they were modeled after secular European educational institutions.
In addition, there were schools which were run by the non-Muslim
minorities of the Empire. Finally, there were schools which
were opened and run by foreign missionaries. As it was felt
that the minority and foreign schools played a role in the
disintegration of the Empire, the memory of this role was
fresh in the minds of those who formed the educational policy
of the New Republic.
Threats to the Republic:
The founders of the Turkish Republic in the early 1920's
considered the multiinstitutional education that had developed
in Turkish society to be threatening. On the one hand, there
was a growing tension between traditionally-minded medrese
graduates and the secularly-oriented mektep graduates.
On the other hand, there was a similar tension between these
two groups and the graduates of minority and foreign schools.
Thus, the Unity of Education Law was intended to end these
tensions and strengthen the social fabric of the society.
The Law was also motivated by the nationalist ideology of
the new State. Historically, Turkish nationalism developed
later than, and in response to, other nationalist movements
within the Empire. The new policies of the Republic made Turkish
the sole language of instruction, the alphabet was changed
from Arabic to Latin letters, and the Turkish language was
"purified" from Arabic and Persian words.
Contrary to its letter as well its spirit, the Unity of Education
Law had been understood, or interpreted, as totally excluding
religious instruction from public schools. Therefore, within
three years following the Law's enactment, all courses concerning
religion (including Arabic and Persian) were extracted from
the curriculum of public schools. Since medreses were
closed, there were no private schools which would provide
religious instruction. And the secondary level schools, which
were intended to train religious functionaries for religious
services, were closed down within years of their establishment
due to the lack of "interest."2
This situation was seen and criticized as an anti-religious
educational policy. In order to confront this criticism, the
Prime Minister of the time (1925-1937), Ismet Inonu, claimed
that "This (practice) should not be considered as anti-religious."
He called for a program of "national education,"
which was to be distinguished from "religious or international
education." However, it was clear that religion was given
no place in this new educational policy.
In 1927, all courses concerning religion were excluded from
the curriculum of primary, secondary, and high schools on
the basis that non-Muslims also live in Turkey. Between the
years 1927-1949, no religious instruction was permitted in
schools. The negative consequences of this educational policy
began to catch the attention of statesmen and politicians
by the time of the second World War. For the first time, in
1949, and after nearly a quarter of a century, the Ministry
of Education allowed a course on religion in 4th and 5th grades
of primary school. The course was optional, depending upon
a written request from parents, and it was taught outside
the regular hours. The public response in favor of this initiative
was overwhelming. Less than 1% of the students opted out of
Reintroducing Religious Education:
In 1956, as a result of multi-party democracy, a new government
(the Demokrat Parti) was established. Being more sympathetic
towards the religious sentiments of society, this new government
introduced a religion course into secondary schools. This
time, if the parents wanted to exempt their children from
the course, they had to apply to the school with a written
request. After nearly ten years, in 1967, the religion course
was introduced to the 1st and 2nd grades of high school. Students,
however, were enrolled for the course with the written request
of their parents. In 1975, the course was extended to the
third (last) grade of the high schools. And, finally, following
the military coup in 1980, the religion course became obligatory
for all secondary level schools. The status of the religion
course in public schools was also constitutionally secured.
The exact title of the course was, "The Culture of Religion
and Knowledge of Ethics."
There are various explanations for the gradual integration
of religious education in the curriculum of public schools
between the years 1949-1982. These explanations include the
need to provide the public with sound religious knowledge;
the impact of the second world war, which made the need for
religion and morality more sensible; the threat of communism;
the erosion of traditional and moral values; and, finally,
the threat of terrorism which claimed approximately 20 lives
per day before the military coup of 1980.
Currently, religious education courses begin at the 4th grade
of primary school and continues throughout secondary and high
schools. From the 4th to the 8th grade, classes consist of
two hours per week. At the high school level, there is one
hour of class per week Thus, a student who has graduated from
high school receives 8 continuous years of religion courses.
There are no fixed books for the course. Rather, each school
decides which book to follow -- provided that the book for
each level is approved by the Ministry of Education. Nearly
half of the content of these courses concerns religion and
Islam with remaining topics ranging from secularism to humanism
and from ethical values to etiquette. The major world religions
such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism are included
in the content of the course.
Critiques of the Curriculum:
There have been, and still are, various criticisms directed
to the course, "The Culture of Religion and the Knowledge
of Ethics." Some of these criticisms are aimed at the
course itself and others toward the way it is taught. Primarily,
the course is criticized as being against the principles of
secularism, i.e., the separation of religion and state. Though
this is a valid point, it ignores the fact that the Unity
of Education Law does not allow for non-secular schools to
provide religious education. Furthermore, the course aims
to give information about religions in general and Islam in
particular. Finally, it is not only a course on religion,
but also on ethics. When these points are taken into consideration,
the claim that the course is against secularism loses its
strength. In any event, since non-secular schools are not
allowed in Turkey, religious education must be given by the
State in public schools. The discussions concerning the status
of the course are, therefore, likely to continue as long as
it remains obligatory.
The course has also been criticized for not being "objective"
enough. According to the program issued by the Ministry of
Education in 1992, the general purpose of the course was "to
strengthen Atatürkism, national unity, human love from
a religious and ethical perspective, and to educate students
about virtues and ethics." However, concerns were raised
that a course on religion must focus on religion itself and
not make it supplementary to other issues. Because of this
view, the new program, which has been developed by the Ministry
in 2000, aims to make religion and ethics the central concern
of the course.
Promoting a New Program:
The new program of the "Culture of Religion and Knowledge
of Ethics" integrates the course with the purposes and
principles of general education such as to educate human beings
to be critical and active participants in the educational
process. It also aims to look at the significance of religion
in the individual's life, i.e. teaching that religion is a
phenomenon which is primarily concerned with the relationship
between the Creator and human beings and showing that religion
can contribute to the culture of universal tolerance and peace.
In this respect, the course emphasizes the need for tolerance
and respect for other religions and traditions, looks at various
understandings and interpretations of religion, and stresses
the universal aspects and values among various faiths. In
addition, the new program is concerned with all educational
phases of the course. This includes developing further programs,
improving the quality of the course materials, and educating
field teachers, etc.
There have been recent efforts to improve the status of religious
education in the public schools. The Ministry of Education
has a specific department under the title, "The General
Directory of Education of Religion." This department
is involved with the implementation and development of the
content of the course. In addition, The Divinity School of
Ankara University has started a new program to train field
(religion) teachers for public schools. There is ongoing cooperation
between the Directory and divinity schools in order to develop
a program for the instruction of religion which is open to
contemporary theoretical developments and is sensitive to
the practical needs of the society.
In Summary: Religious Education in Transition
Turkey is one of the few countries which has experienced
various alternative approaches in religious education in the
20th century and it has tried to learn from its mistakes.
Turkish society experienced the negative consequences of an
extreme secular educational policy which allowed no religious
education at all in public schools. It became obvious, however,
that neither nationalism nor modernity could substitute for
religion. Religion, either as an expression of individual
piety or as an institutional organization, could not be suppressed
or ignored. The current situation of religious education in
Turkey is less than ideal. It is not realistic, for example,
that one or two hours per week can be satisfactory in fulfilling
the genuine need for religion. However, increasing the number
of course hours does not necessarily seem to be the answer.
Less central and more flexible educational policy can better
accommodate religion within the framework of general education.
This development, however, would require certain legal and
The way we understand and teach religion may be the source
of some of the problems still experienced in Turkey. In this
respect, our understanding of religion needs critical evaluation.
One way to accomplish this is to look at one's own religious
beliefs and convictions at a distance. Another way is to try
to see our beliefs and convictions from the perspective of
a person who does not share them with us. In my opinion, both
a critical approach and a dialectical process are essential
to establishing an environment of peaceful coexistence.
Finally, the modern world is facing serious problems: the
ills of industrialization, economic exploitation, environmental
pollution, the possession of nuclear arsenals, population
growth, famine, etc. In addition, intolerance, hatred, and
terrorism are still major concerns for humanity. Religion
can cure some of these ills by educating human beings to have
a strong sense of individual responsibility and a well balanced
notion of social justice.
1 I would like to express my gratitude to Prof. Dr. Mualla
Selcuk for bringing to my attention some recent changes and
developments in the programs of religious education. Prof.
Selcuk is a professor at the Divinity School of Ankara University
(The Department of Religious Education). She is also the Head
of the General Directory of Religious Education in Turkey.
2 These were intended to be vocational schools and came to
be called 'Imam Hatip Liseleri.' The history of these
schools and their status in the current Turkish educational
system is not included in this essay.
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