Education Bill Deepens Turkey's Secular-Religious Divide ; President Sezer May Veto a Law Allowing Graduates of High Schools That Train Imams to Enter Public Universities

Article excerpt

A recently passed higher education reform bill has thrust Turkey into a raging political debate, once again highlighting the secular country's continuing struggle with defining the role of religion in the public sphere.

The bill deals in large part with reorganizing the board that oversees Turkey's public universities. But its critics say they are alarmed by a piece of the legislation: a new law that opens up the public system to graduates of state-run religious high schools that train imams and preachers.

A previous law, passed in the wake of the 1997 "postmodern" coup - a bloodless military intervention that ended the rule of Turkey's first Islamist government - effectively shut out these students from higher education, directing them only to theology faculties.

The bill has drawn criticism from Turkey's secular establishment, which sees it as clearing the way for religious school students to pursue careers in government or the judiciary. Supporters, however, say the debate has been exaggerated - that students of religious studies simply want the option to pursue professional careers in a modern Turkey.

Ural Akbulut, rector of Middle East Technical University in Ankara, says the bill will erode the secular foundations laid out by Mustafa Kemal Atatuerk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

"When the republic was formed by Atatuerk he tried to transform the country from a religious country to a modern secular, European country. Secularity is the guarantee of a modern, European Turkish republic. Otherwise it can turn into an Islamic fundamentalist country," Mr. Akbulut says. "Nobody wants to see the country governed only by graduates of religious schools."

The bill has also led the country's military - which views itself as the supreme guardian of Turkey's secular tradition - to issue one of its strongest statements in recent years: "The sections of the society who are dedicated to the basic pillars of the Republic should not be expected to accept this motion."

The bill was put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose leaders are veterans of Turkey's political Islam movement. The party defines itself as socially conservative, rather than Islamist.

But opponents of the new education law say the emphasis AKP put on helping religious schools - known as "Imam Hatip" schools - is proof of a "hidden agenda" to promote Islam. There are some 80,000 students currently attending such schools, although those numbers could rise significantly with university study now an option for Imam Hatip graduates.

Aydin Dumanoglu, an AKP member of parliament and a founding member of the party, says the criticism is unwarranted. …