Religious education in Turkey

According to frequently cited estimate, 99% of Turkish population is Muslim, but Turkey is a secular state. This Muslim population and secular state do not make an happy couple. Their marriage often produces problems and contradictions...

Religious education in Turkey

Abdurrahman Hendek - World Bulletin 

Religion in education in Turkey is an interesting issue due to an uneasy relationship of the state with religion. According to frequently cited estimate, 99% of Turkish population is Muslim, but Turkey is a secular state. This Muslim population and secular state do not make an happy couple. Their marriage often produces problems and contradictions. In this short article I try to explore this uneasy relationship of secular Turkish state with religion by investigating how religion has beendealt with in the field of education.


The cadre that established Turkey (I mean the cadre that governed the country especially after 1924) saw Islam, or its ‘backward’ (gerici) interpretation as the prime cause of the decline and collapse of the Empire. Hence they sought to reduce the impact of Islam on state and society. For this end, they not only separated religion from the state (secularism), but also sought to control religion and promote their own ‘true’ interpretation of Islam which has been compatible with other state principles such as nationalism and secularism, through religious education and state-controlled religious organisations such as the Presidency of Religious Affairs. Alternative interpretations and the places that can promote such interpretations were condemned and banned (for instance it is still illegal to open private religious schools; moreover, dervish lodges are still banned despite that the ban is loosely applied due to practical reasons and ruling governments’ attitudes). One essential method of ‘domesticating’ religion and promoting ‘true’ interpretation of Islam has been to control religion in education.

Of course it cannot be said that the only reason why the state offers religion in education is to control religion. In fact the state offers it since the majority of its population demands it. According to Çarkoğluand Toprak (2006: 54-56) more than 80% of the population wants religious schools and compulsory religious education lessons. What I want to say is that since there is a high demand, the state does not want that this demand is fulfilled by ‘wrong hands’ who can promote ‘wild’ interpretation of Islam, so the state offers religious education and thereby promotes its own ‘true’ understanding of Islam.


The first assembly of Turkey opened in 1920 when the independence war was still continuing. At that time, the most heated debates focused on the topic of education, especially whether education would have a national or religious character. At that assembly, most of the representatives favoured religious education, but the cadre that seized the power in the second assembly favoured national education, thenceforth Turkish education has been a national character.

Since thefounder cadre believed that religion played its role in the decline of the Ottoman Empire, they tried, as much as they could, to reduce the impact of Islam on society. They first closed madrasas and opened Imam-Hatip schools which were soon closed in 1930. Regarding ordinary state schools, within 7 years (1924-1930) religious education lessons were gradually removed from the curricula of elementary and secondary schools. Furthermore, researches, writings, publications about religion and private religious education were banned. These all were done in the name of ‘secular education’. The following 19 years were without religion and its education. So, the generations of 1930s and 40s were raised without any form of religious knowledge (except they learned in their homes or hidden places).

Religious education came back to school with the introduction of multi-party politics. After the first multi-party election of 1946, religious education was started by CHP in order to attract voters since the voters demanded religious education. Since then, religious education experienced periods of decline and prosperity depending on how ruling governments have viewed it.

In 1949, one hour ‘elective’ religious education lesson was introduced into only 4th and 5th grades of primary schools (families who want their children to take religious education should give a letter to school authorities). In 1950, the lesson became compulsory with the right to opt-out possibility. After six years (1956), one hour lesson was put in the 6th and 7th grades of secondary schools.  After eleven years (1967) one hour lesson was put in 9th and 10th grades. In 1974, the coalition of CHP-MSP introduced compulsory one hour ethics lesson into 4th, 5th 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th grades. In 1976, one hour religious education was put remaining 8th and 11th grades. As can be seen ruling governments were often reluctant and too slow to put religious education lessons into schools even though the majority of the population demanded it. Until 1974, no student hada chance to take religious education in every grades of the school. In 1982, ethics and religious education lessons were merged and became compulsory without opt-out possibility. the lesson was named as ‘religious culture and ethics knowledge’.

Regarding Imam-Hatip Schools, in 1950, four-years Imam-Hatip schools were introduced. In 1955, this schools were increased to seven years. In 1971, middles section of Imam-Hatip was closed, but during the 70s imam-Hatip schools transformed from vocational schools into mainstream educational institutions especially due to the National Salvation Party's membership of a number of coalitions with Nationalist Front governments. In the period of 28 February 1997, middle section of these schools was again closed. Moreover, these schools are reclassified as ‘vocational high schools’ and thereby their graduates were penalised on the university entrance exam (an automatic point deficit) if they wanted to go faculties apart from Divinity Faculties.

When we come to this day, it can be argued that with the latest developments in education (especially in 2012), religion in education in Turkey sees its most prosperous time: the number of Imam-Hatip schools are increasing, their middle section was opened, their students can go every faculties. Regarding religious education in ordinary schools, there is now not only compulsory religious education lesson, but also three elective (seçmeli) religious education lessons.

However there are still important problems to be solved.


The content of religious education is still prepared by the state and the state teaches what it wants, rather than what proper religious education should teach. The state uses religion in education for political ends. As one commentator notes, ‘the state makes sure that children aren’t brainwashed into unauthorized interpretations of Islam by brainwashing the children first with authorized interpretations of Islam’ (Shively, 2008:702).

If one looks at the books used at ‘religious culture and ethics knowledge’, he can easily see these issues: One important component of this authorised interpretation ofIslam is that it is compatible with secularism and the philosophy of Ataturk: needless to say that at the beginning of the every book, there is the portrait of Ataturk and his address to the youth. Moreover, a book called ‘Atatürkçülük (Volume 1, 2, 3, MEB, İstanbul, 2001) is one of the reference book for every book used in these lessons. in almost every book, there is a section, or page devoted to Ataturk’s understanding of Islam or secularism. For instance, in the book taught in 7th grade, there are three pages devoted to secularism (pp. 146-148) or in the book taught in in 8th grade: there are three pages devoted to Ataturk's words on tolerance and Islam (pp.86-87). Interestingly, in a section titled ‘worship beautifies our behaviours’in the book taught in 5th grade, we came across a page that mentions benefits of having secularism (p. 53).

Another problematic issue can be came across is the headscarf issue:  according to Quran (Nour, 31) the headscarf is mandatory for every female Muslim, but the presentation of headscarf in religious culture and ethics knowledge books is problematic: The only headscarfed females in the books are grandmothers (even in these pictures a part of grandmothers’ front hair could be seen) and young girls who are praying. The message given is clear: you are better to wear headscarf only when you are praying and when you are old enough. You can be a very good Muslim even without headscarf.


It can be claimed that the latest developments in education partly satisfied the demands of people, especially the demands for more religious education. The next thing to do is to make sure that religious education lessons teach what proper religious education teach. Religious education lessons and schools should not be places that promote secularism and secular ‘true’ understanding of Islam. The headscarf issue is only an example, but this issue should be solved immediately. If Islam preaches that headscarf and modest dress is mandatory for Muslim females, the lessons, which are put due to the demand of Muslim population, should teach these facts.

As far as I am concerned, state education does not mean everything, but it matters, not least because young people spend a significant part of their daily life in state schools. My final recommendation will be that the best schools will be the schools which have the least state regulation and control, especially if the state is secular. It is time for the state to leave education to non governmental (or civil) and religious organisations.

Last Mod: 01 Eylül 2013, 00:39
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