Saturday, March 30, 2013

Turkey's Imam-Hatip Schools

Turkey's education system contains various pre-professional schools, including a network for training mosque imams and preachers (hatips).  These "imam-hatip schools" have come to be used by many Turks as a way to see that their kids are educated in an environment that encourages religious values, much like the niche occupied by religious schools in the United States.  The Islamist political movement which currently controls the national government is dominated by imam-hatip school graduates, and has pursued policies favorable to these institutions.  Other Turks, on the other hand, see them as a particularly dangerous threat to the country's 20th-century history of militant secularism.

Iren Ozgur has published a useful study of these schools, their students, and the parents who send their kids there.  One thing that it highlighted for me is just how socially divided Turkey is over the issue of religion in public life.  In the introduction, she describes how the imam-hatip students are bound together by the experience of hostility and discrimination on the part of secular society enhances their sense of solidarity, and in practice their lifelong support for each other.  This hostility is a two-way street, however:
The Imam-Hatip school community can be so insular that those who no longer associate with it can find it difficult to maintain their ties with other members.  Ahmet Hakan told me that once he began working for a secularist media group and "hanging out in secularist neighborhoods," he was ostracized by members of the community for his "out of the ordinary" lifestyle.  Ahmet Hakan's feelings were justified.  Individuals within the Imam-Hatip school community voiced their disappointment and antipathy toward him and others who had left the community.
The other conclusion I drew from this book, and which may be stated overtly in the work itself, though I can't find it now, is that the schools in the present form seem to arise out of Turkey's religious milieu rather than create it.  During periods when there were debilitating handicaps put on imam-hatip graduates, parents simply hired private religious tutors to make up for the lost inclusion of Islamic values in the curriculum.  I think if there is any strengthening effect of the students' religious orientation, it is that they are not forced into the secular milieu at all to become familiar with it.  This element, especially when combined with the mutual discrimination between the religious and secular wings of society only enforces and perpetuates those divisions.

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