Recent educational reforms that make it easier for students at religious schools to attend university have sparked celebration among conservative Turks, anger among secularists, and shrugs of indifference among some education officials who are disgusted with the way politicking has overshadowed what they see as a need for a complete overhaul of the education system.
"For the first time ever, Turkey thanked the Supreme Educational Council," or YOK, headlined the pro-government daily Bugun in late July. The newspaper was referring to a late July decision taken by YOK to end a system under which students at religious high schools had points deducted from the results of their university entrance exams, effectively barring them from the country's most prestigious universities.
"It was like asking two people to run 100 meters, and then giving one a head-start of 50 meters," said Yusuf Sula, chairman of an association of religious school alumni. Introduced in 1999, the quotient system was part of a huge military-led crackdown on political Islam than began with the toppling of an Islamist-oriented government in 1998.
In 2004, the religious-minded Justice and Development Party (AKP) government passed a law ending the inequalities in the system, only to have its legislation blocked by the staunchly secular-minded then-president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. These days, however, a long-time AKP Party operative, Abdullah Gul, is the sitting president, and the YOK -- once a pillar of the secular system -- has a pro-government majority.
Unsurprisingly, the late July changes prompted angry responses by secularists. "This is a political change aimed at serving AKP's efforts to people state institutions with its supporters," Turkey's biggest teachers' union, Egitim-Sen, said in a written statement.
Editor of the secularist daily Vatan, Gungor Mengi agreed. "The decision has been taken to get religious school students into faculties of law, medicine and political science [so that] . . . the followers of religious sects can 'propagate themselves' inside the judiciary and civil service," he wrote on July 23.
A retired chief prosecutor who is known for his capacity to read the minds of the top judiciary, meanwhile, said the changes would likely be blocked by the country's top administrative court. On August 9, the court appeared to rule that out, stating that the Supreme Educational Council had the authority to change what Turks call the quotient system.
Yunus Ozturk, the chairman of an Istanbul branch of Turkey's biggest teachers' union, agrees that the quotient system was unfair. But he compares its removal to "giving a paint job to a building that is falling down."
"The educational system in this country is on the verge of collapse," he says. "What we need is a radical rethink, not tinkering."
The 1999 measures drove parents away from religious schools in droves, with the numbers of students dropping from 200,000 to 70,000 today. Even so, many of the country's leading political figures, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, are graduates of religious schools. Erdogan's four children all studied at religious schools before going on to study in American universities.
Nuray Mert, an expert on Turkish Islam, thinks the Erdogan family's story is emblematic of the changing values -- and financial clout -- of the country's growing conservative middle class. "The new elites have new dreams for their children," she says. These changes "are not an investment for the future, as is feared, but a pledge of loyalty to the past."
A former student of a religious school who now writes for Turkey's most popular mainstream newspaper, Ahmet Hakan takes a similar line. "Like all empires, these schools were born, grew, declined and fell," he wrote in Hurriyet in late July. "Even among the most fanatic [Islamists] . . . foreign language education has crushed the interest in religious education."
Iren Ozgur, a researcher who recently completed a doctorate about Turkey's religious schools at Oxford University, echoes Hakan's sentiments. Since the crackdown on religious schools in the late 1990s, Ozgur points out, there has been a steep rise in the number of private secondary schools linked to Turkey's most powerful Islamic movement. These secondary schools, affiliated with a charismatic movement led by Fethullah Gulen's, stick closely to Turkey's official curriculum. Conservative-minded parents are drawn to them not just because of their outstanding academic record but also because of the teachers' reputation for moral probity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.