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Muslim world turns to Turkish model of education

Turkey's Islamic schools, managed by its secular government, are becoming a model for non-secular countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan madrassa
Pakistani religious students read the Quran at an Islamic seminary in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo caption: Pakistani religious students read the Quran at an Islamic seminary in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Children crowd into a large, open room an hour drive from Peshawar, Pakistan, their young bodies packed together despite the lingering heat. A small boy with a serious face sits in the back, a copy of the Quran on the cement floor beside him.

Madrasas like this have come to dominate much of rural education in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the state has forgotten its children and the mullahs have room to step in.

But with the Taliban insurgency going strong and a rising Islamic militancy in Pakistan, experts worry that such schools — which often push a more fundamentalist brand of Islam than is traditional in these countries — have become fertile recruiting grounds for the Taliban.

With their own public education systems in shambles, however, Afghanistan and Pakistan are beginning to look to Turkey’s brand of Islamic education as a potential antidote to madrasas where there is often little offered beyond rote memorization of the Quran.

“Through education you are, in one form or another, controlling the political socialization of the upcoming generation,” said Iren Ozgur, a Turkish-American academic at New York University who has studied Turkey’s imam-hatip system.

The imam-hatip syllabus devotes just 40 percent of study to religious topics, including Arabic and Islamic law. Secular topics like math, science and literature fill the rest of the time.

Can children get a balanced education at Islamic schools like the ones in Turkey? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Earlier this year, education ministers from Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Ankara to sign a protocol on cooperation in education.

“I visited a few imam-hatip schools in Ankara and saw that they give a balanced education there,” said Farooq Wardak, the minister of education in Afghanistan. “Learning from their experiences, we will be able to achieve a balance in our own Islamic education system.”

According to U.N. figures only 12.6 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, only 63 percent of children finish primary school education and less than 3 percent were enrolled in higher education as of 2008.

They are hardly the only nations eyeing Turkey’s imam-hatip system. The schools already exist in Bulgaria, and Russia wasn’t far behind in sending a delegation south to examine the imam-hatip model as a potential way to manage their own growing Muslim population.

Despite the attention, however, there is hardly a consensus on whether Turkey’s system is the right way to bring Muslim youth back from the madrasas — and nowhere is the system more controversial than in Turkey itself.

A predominantly Muslim country, Turkey was established on a rigid platform of secularism. The schools were founded in the 1920s to educate Muslim preachers and prayer-leaders. But with more than 500 imam-hatip schools in Turkey educating more than 100,000 students they have since become incubators for Turkey’s rising Muslim elite. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended an imam-hatip school himself, as did one-third of his party’s MPs.

Having religious education integrated into the state system has long been a tough pill to swallow for Turkish secularists. After senior generals pushed out the country’s first Islamist-led government in 1997, the military enforcers of secularism targeted the imam-hatip system and attendance plummeted. Changes to the university admission system soon after meant that students studying at imam-hatip schools had points deducted from their university entrance exams, effectively banning them from Turkey’s most prestigious universities.

Under the governing Justice and Development Party, whose pro-Islamic background is infamous, the decision was passed last summer to end these systemic inequalities — but not without protest.