Turkey's 'Devout Generations'
by Burak Bekdil
The Gatestone Institute
Originally published under the title "What Turkish Islamists Understand about Education."
Asked what she would do if she were president, a Turkish schoolgirl told CNN-Turk last month, "I would reinstate the death penalty."
It is customary for Turkish TV crews to interview young students at the start of their mid-term holidays, with the cliché closing question invariably being, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" This year's school holiday in January was no exception. One interview, however, produced a chilling portrait of a girl, aged just 7 or 8.
"I have big goals," she answered the interviewer. "They will get bigger and bigger. Step by step," she said. The girl said she wanted to start by becoming a district or village head. Then a lawmaker, a minister, prime minister and finally the president of Turkey.
Up to this point, TV viewers must have watched her with amusement. Then the reporter asked her: "What would you do if you became the president?"
In a calculated, tranquil tone, the girl answered: "I would reinstate the death penalty."
Erdogan openly and frequently declares his ambition to "raise devout generations."
She was merely one of the products of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ambitious social engineering project to "raise devout generations."
In 2013, then Prime Minister Erdogan's government made it compulsory for students in fourth grade and higher to take up "religion" classes. In religion classes, the Turkish curriculum almost exclusively teaches the virtues of Sunni Islam, but non-Muslim and Alevi students also must attend these classes.
In 2014, Turkey's National Education Council recommended making Ottoman Turkish a compulsory course at all schools. After an uproar in the secular public, the council recommended making the Ottoman language a compulsory course at religious "imam schools," and an elective course at other schools.
Erdogan participates in a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the religious Imam Hatip school system, January 2014.
In a 2015 speech, Erdogan boasted that since his government came to power in 2002, the number of imam school students had risen from a mere 60,000 to 1.2 million.
In its latest "Islamist touch" on the education system, Turkey's Education Ministry devised plans to include renowned Turkish and Muslim scientists in its new draft curriculum. Under the plan, works by Muslim scientists will be taught in physics classes, in addition to the works of scientists such as Newton, Einstein and Maxwell.
For instance, ninth-grade students will learn the works of al-Khazini and al-Biruni on density. In their force and motion course, they will learn Newton's laws of motion, but Avicenna's works on the concept of inertia will also be taught. In tenth grade, students will learn the work of Ismail al-Jazari on hydrostatic balance and al-Farabi's work on sound waves. Other touches of "Muslim science" will be the acoustic features in Mimar Sinan's works of architecture, and Ibn al-Haytham and Averroës' work on optical systems. In 11th grade, students will learn about the scientific aspects of the 15th century cannon developed by Mehmed the Conqueror. The work of Ismail al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers on mechanical systems, such as levers, will also be taught. Twelfth grade will feature the 15th century scientists Ali Qushji and Ulugh Beg's work on space material and their movements.
A new Education Ministry draft curriculum removes all mention of world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say, a vocal critic of Erdogan, from a 12th grade music class chapter.
The draft, however, is not only about additions, but also about dropping the names of unwanted characters from the curriculum. For instance, it removes all mention of world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say from the 12th grade music class chapter on "Music Culture," which covers Turkey's Western music composers. Say has been a vocal critic of Erdogan's Islamist policies and was subjected to a controversial and long-lasting blasphemy case, in which he was charged and convicted over tweets in which he quoted the 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, in 2012. Appealing his 10-month imprisonment in the case, which was suspended for five years, Say was acquitted in September 2016 on charges of "insulting religious beliefs held by a section of society."
All that is normal in a country ruled by an Islamist leader who thinks all good belongs to the Muslim culture and all evil to the others. In a 2014 speech at a gathering of Muslim leaders from Latin America, Erdogan claimed that Muslim sailors reached the American continent in 1178 -- exactly 314 years before Columbus. He also claimed that Columbus, in his memoirs, mentioned the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.
Where do all these Islamization efforts leave Turkey's education standards? Not, unsurprisingly, in a proud place. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) education test have revealed some of the most pressing problems in Turkish education. According to the PISA findings in 2016, Turkey dropped from 44th place to 49th (out of 72 countries surveyed), compared to the last test in 2012.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the number of Turkish 15-year-olds who scored below average on the triennial PISA test is three times higher than the number of students who scored below average in more successful countries. Some 31.2% of Turkish students below 15 years of age underperformed in mathematics, sciences and reading. In contrast, only 10% of students in countries that neared the top of the list underperformed on math, sciences and reading. Between 2012 and 2016 Turkey's ranking dropped from 43rd in science to 52nd and from 41st in reading to 50th.
Erdogan does not mind. As long as Turks are religiously devout, he thinks, scientific failure will not matter. Better to have a young student like the girl in the TV interview than a thousand bright Silicon Valley-class young innovators.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.