Why schools have become a battleground in Turkey

Scott Peterson,
Christian Science Monitor.

When Turkey’s teachers returned to school in September, they found their numbers decimated by expulsions, more than half their textbooks gone, and some 2,250 educational institutions sealed with police tape.

Schools have emerged as a critical battleground in Turkey, after a failed coup attempt on July 15 prompted sweeping purges of, by one estimate, 125,000 individuals from the police, armed forces, judiciary, and other ministries; more than 46,000 people have been arrested. Educators have borne the brunt of the crackdown, accounting for nearly half of those arrested, expelled, or suspended.

For teachers, that has created a palpable sense of fear for the future. For students, it has meant a scramble amid uncertainty, dealing with new teachers and curricula, or joining the crush in search of new schools after their own schools were closed.

But for Turkey, the new era is proving to be even more transformative.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), critics say, are sharply escalating a fight that has been simmering for years.

His goals are twofold: to block opposition voices in the name of fighting “terrorism,” removing anyone who could derail his vision of one society united in a common path and under the leadership of an all-
powerful executive president. And he wants to finally push aside anyone associated with a key ally-turned-enemy, the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers have gained positions of influence throughout the country’s institutions.

The ultimate aim is to squeeze nearly a century of secular tradition out of the system and further Islamize society and the state, critics say. A central means to that end is Turkey’s education system, with its profound role in imprinting Mr. Erdoğan’s vision on a rising generation.

“It is a project to transform society, in a way the ruling party wants … to gravitate toward an identity of Sunni Islam, just a very specific definition,” says Turgut Yokuş, director of Istanbul (Turkey) Branch No. 2 of the secular teachers union Eğitim Sen.

“We have many ethnic groups in Turkey, many cultures, many languages, many beliefs,” says Mr. Yokuş, whose union has been targeted. “Turkey is a mosaic, and AKP wants one religion, one language, one congregation – one kind of people. They are crushing this diversity.”

Hundreds of educators agree, echoing such views during a recent protest in Istanbul.

“We are facing a period worse than the coup,” Tahsin Yeşildere, head of the Association of University Instructors, told Reuters. “In our country, which is being turned into a one-man regime through the state of emergency, all those in opposition resisting this trend have become targets.”

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