While President Obama hugs Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and solicits advice from the Islamist premier on how to raise daughters, fundamental change is under way in Turkey. Having won a third term, Erdogan has set his goals on changing Turkey fundamentally. He has abandoned minimum age requirements for Quran classes, and also undercut regulation of those teaching them. The net effect is that unregistered, Saudi-trained imams can now indoctrinate children as young as 3 or 4, raising a generation who will think like Saudis.
While Turks wait to see what Erdogan’s proposed new constitution will bring, Erdogan has given a preview, effectively side-stepping virulent political debate to ram through more sweeping education reforms. Among his changes is restructuring the educational experience into three four-year blocks, much like elementary, middle, and high school in the States. Students might enter vocational schools earlier. Opponents fear, however, that the new system may lead to earlier withdrawal of girls, a spike in child marriages, and gender imbalance in many programs. Admittedly, some liberal and secular suspicion may be motivated less by the facts of the bill, but by the poor record of the Islamist government when it comes to women’s rights. Erdogan has already allowed women wearing Saudi-style coverings to wear them while on university campuses; most Turkish universities had previously banned the practice to prevent religious coercion.
Erdogan’s educational reforms have also seen the introduction of more religious classes into the high school curriculum; and the equalization for the purpose of college admission of those who attended religious academies and those who attended schools with a humanities- and science-based curriculum. The net effect of this reform is to allow Islamists who have no solid basis in basic humanities to enter and, over the course of a generation, fundamentally alter the government bureaucracy.
A decade ago, when politicians said Turkey was a model, they referred to how it blended East and West and had transformed itself into a vibrant democracy. Increasingly, Erdogan’s model is about eviscerating democracy from inside. At best, Turkey has become Malaysia; at worst, it has become Russia.
Perhaps, of course, this is not fair. Russia and Malaysia both rank above Turkey in terms of press freedom and education.