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Turkey's Islamic schools, managed by its secular government, are becoming a model for non-secular countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Many of the problems we are seeing in Turkey today are very much a product of the imam-hatip schools,” said Professor Hakan Yavuz of the University of Utah’s Middle East Center. “You see this new moral code being formed; those who drink are bad, those who date women are bad, if you are gay you should be excluded, if not killed.”
“Is this the type of country that wants to join the EU?”
Others, like Ozgur, argue that the imam-hatip schools actually curb Islamic extremism by bringing religious education under state control and within a system of checks and balances.
“The moment you close the schools you will start to see these illegal madrasas opening up,” she argued. “And then there is no way to control what they are saying, how they are influencing the kids, the religious rhetoric of the country.”
The schools are a branch of the ministry of education, which approves and monitors the curriculum, books and teachers.
But can imam-hatip schools — established within the confines of Turkey’s secular structure — work in other countries? The curriculum is easy enough to transfer but what about the teachers? Ironically, the very secularist check that makes the imam-hatip schools so contentious in Turkey may be precisely why they work here.
“The Islam of Turkey is different from that of Saudi [Arabia] or Kuwait, and especially Iran,” said Yavuz. “The notion of the state is paramount here, where secular reforms have forced Islamic discourse to adapt.”
Critics worry that in countries lacking a strong secular foundation, the schools, if built, may fail to serve as the moderate alternative they are meant to provide.
“Here you have a class on jihad, but it is structured by the education ministry in a way that does not challenge the secular values of the Turkish Republic,” said Ozgur. “But can you guarantee that the teachers you get in Pakistan or Afghanistan will be able to do that?”
Still, as Turkey’s regional profile continues to rise it is increasingly being looked upon to play a greater role among its eastern neighbors. For many, education is the next frontier.
“If they can find a way to transfer the fundamentals of these schools, then in effect Turkey would be helping to spread a form of Islam that is more liberal and moderate across the Middle East,” said Ozgur.