[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate in literature, has an interesting passage in his cherished book, “Istanbul.” He recalls his childhood days in the ’50s, and tells how the urban upper class he grew up within looked down upon their practicing co-religionists. “The nation-state,” he writes, “belonged more to us than to the religious poor.”
Pamuk is right. The Turkish nation-state, born in the mid-20s as a republic without democracy, belonged mainly to the secular elite. In the Ottoman times, in fact, the elite were much more diverse and included religious conservatives as well. But the latter were systematically purged from the “center” of society in the era of High Kemalism (1925-1950). In the “university reform” of 1933, for example, hundreds of professors who disagreed with the Kemalist ideology lost their jobs. The state was creating the elite in its own image, and those who rejected being “re-created,” a term used by Mustafa Kemal, were being sidelined.
The children of the damned
That’s why, in the upcoming decades, religiosity would become a hallmark of the lower classes in Turkey. Those who go to the mosque five times a day would be deemed as a “köylü,” or a peasant.
Yet things have changed a lot since the early ’80s. As Turkey engaged in democracy and free market capitalism, the “religious poor” have found ways into the center of the society. Today not all of them are poor anymore, and thus they can create their own media empires, build their non-governmental organizations, or send their kids to universities in America. Moreover, the party they overwhelmingly vote for, the AKP, has been in power since 2002.
But the Kemalists are no idiots. Over the years, they have refined the caste system that they enacted during the genesis of the nation-state. They refined their tactics, too. Direct military coups are not feasible anymore, so they now use the judiciary as their main instrument.
The recent decision by the Council of State to annul the decision of the Higher Education Board, or YÖK, to give equal “coefficients” to all high school graduates is a perfect example.
Now, if you haven’t been following the news closely, this might sound like Chinese to you. So, just in case, let me give a brief summary.
The whole controversy here is about whether the graduates of the imam hatip schools have the right to go to universities other then theology faculties. These are official high schools created for raising “imams and preachers.” Their curriculum is not actually too different from normal high schools. Their students, too, learn history, geography or math. They, too, wear jackets and ties. They just have additional classes for Koran and hadith studies.
In other words, these schools are not, by any means, anything like those radical Pakistani madrasas in which medieval-minded men teach about the niceties of jihad. Studies have actually shown that imam hatip graduates are fairly modern and quite diverse.
Yet for the Kemalists, even moderate religion is a big danger. That’s why they have always resented imam hatips and tried to keep them as limited as possible. They have argued that these are only vocational schools to raise mosque personnel, and the Turkish state doesn’t need too many of them.
But the truth is that these schools appeal to the needs of not the state, but the society. Turkey is a bizarre country in which any sort of private religious education is strictly banned. Therefore, the official imam hatips, opened by center-right governments from the 1950s onwards, emerged as the only possible form of religious education. Most conservative families send their children to these schools not to see them as imams, but engineers, doctors or civil servants “who also know a bit about their religion.” Hence, most graduates of these schools, including celebrities such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, study not theology but secular sciences in college.
Inequality for inequality
This “religious infiltration” to universities is a serious threat to the Kemalist caste system. Thus the latter tried to restore itself during the “soft coup” of 1997. The powerful generals of the time not only shortened imam hatip schools from six to three years, but, more importantly, they practically disallowed their graduates to go to faculties other than theology. The trick was to lower their “coefficients,” the number that is multiplied by their high school grades and then added to their university entry exam scores. The result was that an imam hatip graduate had to score much higher than a normal school graduate to get the same result.
About two weeks ago, the YÖK decided to give an “equal coefficient” to all students. But the Council of State rushed to annul the decision. “These students can’t be equal,” the staunchly Kemalist judges tautologically argued, “because they have different legal statuses.”
This is not too different from saying that blacks can not sit together with whites on a bus, because they have different “legal statuses” – a difference that comes from nothing but a belief in inequality.
So, this is where we are at right now vis-à-vis the caste system in Kemalist Turkey. As for the question in my headline – whether this will survive – my answer is no. It won’t survive.
Yet, at least for a while, it will continue to ruin the lives of those citizens that it shamelessly discriminates against.