Turkish critics fear Erdogan’s Islamist agenda shaping children’s education

Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), said that children who lived without the Quran would remain “with the devil and devilish people.”
Sunday 16/12/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet, last September. (Reuters)
Reshaping society. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet, last September. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkey’s official Islam watchdog has come under fire for suggesting that children who do not read the Quran will become victims of the devil, a statement that critics say is an indication of Ankara’s intention to weaken secularism and to strengthen the role of religion in the country.

Reports quoted Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), as saying during a visit to the south-eastern city of Mardin that children who lived without the Quran would remain “with the devil and devilish people.” Suggesting that religious education should start at the age of 7, Erbas added that “as their character form, our children will have a Muslim personality.”

Such statements are explosive in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with a secular constitution and a government that is accused by its critics of having an Islamist agenda. Opposition officials and media condemned Erbas’s statement as a sign that the government is chipping away at secular pillars of the state.

Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker of the secularist Republican People’s Party, the biggest opposition group in Turkey’s parliament, said Erbas violated the constitution that protects freedom of religion, bans efforts to compel citizens to worship in a certain way and makes it illegal to “exploit religion” for political purposes.

“We expect the prosecution to take steps against him,” Tanal said in a telephone interview. He added, however, that the judiciary was unlikely to move against Erbas because the religious chief reflected government positions.

The opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet accused Erbas of having started an “attack on children and secularism.” Ihsan Eliacik, a prominent Islamic scholar known for his anti-government views, tweeted that the Quran said religious authorities in the service of a ruler were “with the devil.” The Diyanet responded by saying it was only natural that Erbas would invite Muslims to read the Quran and “stay away from the devil.”

Critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party, an organisation rooted in political Islam, say the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to make Turkey more religious, a charge Ankara denies. “The joint goal of all education and our teaching system is to bring up good people with respect for their history, culture and values,” Erdogan said earlier this year.

Erdogan’s detractors point out that the president, an observant Muslim whose affinities are with the Muslim Brotherhood, has declared an aim to raise a “pious generation.” Spending for religious high schools, so-called Imam Hatip schools, for boys and girls aged 14-18, has increased drastically. The schools receive 23% of state funding for high schools even though they have only 11% of the students.

The Diyanet is a state institution that administers the approximately 85,000 mosques in Turkey, pays the salaries of the Muslim clergy and sends imams abroad to serve in Turkish mosques in Europe and elsewhere. The government is to boost the Diyanet with a 34% increase in its budget next year, reaching nearly $2 billion, news reports said. Opposition media said the Diyanet’s budget was about four times as big as the amount allocated to the Ministry for Science, Industry and Technology.

Opposition officials say the Diyanet has become an arm of government policies. Tanal accused the Erdogan government of trying to gain votes by playing the religious card. “Everything Erbas says as the head of the Diyanet is an official statement,” Tanal said. “They are exploiting religion” for political ends.

The Diyanet has also raised suspicions beyond Turkey’s borders. Earlier this year, Germany placed a dozen Turkish imams under investigation on suspicion that they were spying on followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at the request of the Ankara government, which accuses him of masterminding a military coup attempt in 2016. The charges against the imams were dropped because some of the suspects had left Germany or because prosecutors could not find evidence that they had agreed to requests by the Diyanet to spy on Gulen supporters.

Another reason that Erbas’s statement was controversial is that officials at Imam Hatip schools and religious officials have been accused of child abuse. In February, a janitor in an Imam Hatip school in the south-eastern province of Adiyaman was sentenced to 572 years in prison for abusing 18 students. Last year, an imam in the western Turkish city of Aksehir was arrested for sexually abusing two girls in a Quran course.

In January, the Diyanet caused an outcry when it said girls could marry at the age of 9 and boys at the age of 12, in contradiction to Turkey’s laws that say the minimum age is 18 in general and 16 in exceptional cases with approval by the courts. Erbas denied that the department had supported such a suggestion but he fanned the flames of criticism himself by visiting Kadir Misiroglu, an author and critic of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who gave the republic its secularist outlook.