In her family’s bare, one-story concrete home in a poor neighborhood, 14-year-old Fatma gets ready for her first day of high school. Wearing her school uniform — a gray polo and black slacks — she shuffles across the tile floor to wet her comb in a hallway sink, and braid her thick dark hair.
Around the corner, her mom heats bread on the kitchen stove. Fatma’s younger brother and dad are still asleep.
“High school doesn’t start until nine,” she whispers. If things were normal she could wake up at eight, not six in the morning. But things aren’t normal for Fatma, who didn’t want to be identified by her real name. She took a placement test last year and qualified for a competitive public high school. There is one pretty close, but it’s full. So Fatma was placed at a school 20 miles away. In Istanbul traffic, the ride can take hours.
Fatma says her dad was pretty upset about the school being so far away, and about her having to take the city bus. But Fatma says she prefers the early wake-up and the bus to the alternative: her neighborhood “imam hatip” school. “The school administration encouraged me to enroll in the imam hatip school instead,” but she wouldn’t, Fatma says. She has a couple of reasons: First, she wants a strong secular education, and second, she’s Alevi – a religious minority in Turkey.
Imam hatip schools were created in the early days of the Turkish Republic to train Sunni Muslim scholars. They’re now open to all students who want an education that emphasizes Sunni Islam.
But what angers Fatma — and many others in Turkey — is that more and more secular schools are being converted into imam hatip schools. Just like the one in Fatma’s neighborhood.
A teacher at a secular middle school, Ozden Aras is worried about the shift. “I think science is more important than religion, but in Turkey now religion is more important than science,” she explains. This summer she found herself fighting to keep her school from being converted into an imam hatip school. Like the majority of Turkey, she’s Sunni. But she says the religious curriculum should be an option, not the norm.
“Lots of people want to have academic education. They want their children to be a doctor, to be an engineer, to be a lawyer,” she says. “More than 50 percent of people, even Sunnis, don’t want to send their children to go to religious schools because in Turkey there’s a strong secularism, too.”
Ozden and her school’s community resisted the government’s plans — and won. But that’s rare. More schools are being converted, and the number of imam hatip schools has leapt more than 70 percent in the past four years. At the opening of a new imam hatip school in Ankara last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted that students enrolled in religious education increased 15-fold since he joined Turkey’s leadership in 2002. He has also said he wants Turkey to raise a more “pious youth.”
Twelve hours after waking up, Fatma gets back from school. Before tackling homework, she helps her mom with dinner. When asked how she likes her new school, Fatma tells her parents that she’s excited about her electives in sociology and communications.
She says lots of students actually chose religion courses as electives. For Fatma and Ozden, that’s exactly as it should be: If you want to learn about religion, great, but you shouldn’t be forced to do it.
This report was originally broadcast on PRI’s The World and is derived from a longer audio-documentary for the public radio program “Interfaith Voices,” as part of their special “God and Government” series.