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
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
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. …