Turkish lawmakers have passed a hotly contested bill that allows parents to send their children to Islamic schools at an earlier age, a reform that provoked brawls among parliamentarians and mass protests by secular Turks and teachers.
The education reform bill extends compulsory education from eight to 12 years, but also allows children as young as 10 to attend religious “imam hatip” schools originally set up to train Islamic clerics, the BBC reports.
The bill overturned a law forced through parliament by the Turkish military in 1997, which stopped children under the age of 15 attending the schools. Some 295 of 550 lawmakers voted for the reform on Friday, with 91 opposing it.
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Erdogan, himself a graduate of an Islamic school, horrified Turkey’s secular opposition when he spoke earlier this year of plans to raise a “religious youth,” and critics have accused him of promoting religious conservatism by stealth.
Brawls erupted in parliament earlier this month after the governing AK Party forced the bill through the committee stage without any real public debate, and police had to employ water cannon and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters on Thursday in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, Al Jazeera reports.
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The government has defended its overhaul of the education system, arguing that it reverses undemocratic measures imposed by the military, according to the Associated Press. In a speech to parliament after the vote, Education Minister Omer Dincer said:
“This law will go down in history as an important step towards the reconciliation of the state with its people.”
Education has long been a key battleground between Turkey’s religious conservatives and secularists, Reuters reports. Upon founding the Turkish republic in 1923, the modernizing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk immediately closed the country’s religious schools, believing religion would hold the fledgling state back.
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