By Dr. Eldad Pardo and Marcus Sheff —
In the latest report published in November 2016 by IMPACT-se analyzing Turkey’s school curriculum—and in what might be a surprise to many—we found no indicators of a movement towards radical Islam or a departure from democracy. Peace, respect for the “Other,” democratic principles and tolerance comprise the curriculum’s central values.
But now, significant and retrograde changes seem to be in the planning stages for education in Turkey.
On January 13, Turkey’s Ministry of Education posted on its website drafts for changes in the curriculum for the coming 2017–18 academic year. According to news reports, in the new textbooks, the concept of jihad will be examined in several course components under the rubric of “values.” Until now , Jihad and Gaza (two variations of Holy War) were introduced only in the medieval sections of international studies and social studies textbooks. The entire unit on “The Beginnings of Life and Evolution” covering Darwin’s and other theories of evolution will be entirely removed.
New curriculum content that will certainly be controversial among the secular and educated classes in Turkey includes a dramatic culling of Ataturk’s philosophy and the reintroduction of a narrative of Ottoman victory over British and Indian forces during the First World War—previously avoided in consideration of British sensibilities. But perhaps most to the point, Islamic education will be further enhanced.
Interestingly, Minister of Education Ismet Yilmaz is reported to have invited students, teachers, parents and educationalists to submit their opinions on the drafts. But the timetable is very short and worryingly, no open discussion will be allowed on “religion and morality classes.”
So where is Turkey heading?
Curricula reflect the values that nations wish to pass onto the next generation. A nation’s curriculum is also a fine indicator of its future vision. In our November 2016 report we stressed that teaching evolutionary theories, the arts, and the presence of Turkey’s historical democratic and secular values all suggest that the curriculum under Erdogan is not in fact a radical one. We pointed out that as signs of openness, only one new Islamic education textbook displays a girl wearing a hijab—not a popular image for secular Turks to see in schoolbooks; that women learn to pursue a career and overcome gender inequalities; and that students should “respect the opinions, beliefs and lifestyles of all people.”
Turkish school students are currently taught to value Western civilization, study civil rights and have pride in Turkey’s role of defending Western democracy. They study philosophy, science and figurative arts, including nudity. Statues of Buddha, along with Michelangelo’s Moses (a holy prophet for Islam which many Muslims would say should not be depicted visually) are featured unabashedly.
And though “Turkish Islam” forms the central pillar of Turkish identity, this national version of Islamic civilization had already been introduced as a central pillar of the curriculum thirty-six years ago, long before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party’s rise to power. Beginning in 1980, successive secular Turkish governments began the process of resuscitating Turkish-Islamic identity, which Erdogan has admittedly accelerated in recent years. Yet the curriculum honors ancient Turkish shamanism, Alevi and Sufi mysticism, with its poet-philosophers, alongside Aristotle and Voltaire, Pascal and Einstein. True, Turkish longing for the nation’s imperial past is present; indeed, Turks have long seen themselves as the guardians of Islam. Militarism is also featured, in the context of defense of the homeland, albeit with respect for former enemies.
The reported changes in the Turkish curriculum represent an increased Islamization. While the Turkish Ministry of Education is still expressing its openness to hear other views, it is not too late for Turks to consider the benefits the remarkably tolerant curriculum that exists today and to lobby for it.
Dr. Eldad Pardo is Director of Research and Marcus Sheff is CEO at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se)