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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion, State and Education: Turkish and American Perspectives

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


Turkey and the United States provide fascinating points of comparison with regard to the role of religion in public life, and particularly the role of reli­gion in each nation’s educational landscape. Drawing upon current research as well as fieldwork from a recent trip to Turkey, Boisi Cen­ter associate director Erik Owens spoke about recent educational and constitutional reforms in Tur­key on April 17 at the Center’s final lunch colloquium of the year.

Turkey’s government was strongly—even stridently—secular for eighty years, but in the last decade Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has championed a series of major reforms to make the state and its schools more accommodating to the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens. Several of these reforms have broadened the influence of Imam Hatip schools, public vocational schools originally created in the 1920s to train religious leaders in state-sanctioned forms of Sunni Islam, but which now feature a broader curriculum focused on religious, moral and civic leadership. All Turk­ish schools provide civic education and require recitation of an ethno-nationalist pledge of allegiance. But the five percent of Turks (including the Prime Minister) who are Imam Hatip graduates form a cohesive network of citizens who embrace and endorse a religious conception of Turkishness at odds with the previously dominant secularism. This shift toward greater accommodation of religion is occuring as Turkey enjoys a booming economy and increased stature in regional and global affairs, a fact that makes Turkey a key country to watch as its Arab neighbors seek stability amidst revolutions and wars.

A passionate discussion period followed Owens’s talk, highlighting the expertise of theologians and political scientists as well as the lived experi­ences of several Turks, Armenians and Kurds in attendance.