ISTANBUL (Reuters) - In the Beyoglu Anadolu religious school in Istanbul, gilded Korans line the shelves and on a table lies a Turkish translation of “Eclipse,” a vampire-based fantasy romance by U.S. novelist Stephanie Meyer.
No-one inside the school would have you believe this combination of Islamic and western influences demonstrates potential to serve as a ‘moderate’ educational antidote to radical Islam.
But there is fresh outside interest in schools like this, which belong to the network known as imam-hatip.
Some people, particularly officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan, have suggested the Turkish system can light the way to a less extremist religious education for their young Muslims.
The interest is understandable. The imam-hatip network is a far cry from the western stereotype of the madrassa as an institution that teaches the Koran by rote and little else.
Originally founded to educate Muslim religious functionaries in the 1920s, the imam-hatip syllabus devotes only around 40 percent of study to religious subjects like Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence and rhetoric. The rest is given over to secular topics.
The network has incubated the elite of the Islamist-rooted AK party which came to power in Turkey in 2002. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who went on to study economics — and around one third of his party’s MPs attended imam-hatip schools.
For Turks, however, it’s ironic that a system which for over a decade has been suppressed by the military enforcers of secularism could be seen to champion any institutional accommodation between the Islamic and the secular.
A revised system of university credits introduced in the late 1990s puts imam-hatip students seeking to study non-religious subjects at university at a disadvantage.
“It’s very interesting that these schools that are so controversial in our own country have become role models elsewhere,” said Iren Ozgur, a Turkish-American academic at New York University who has studied the imam-hatip system.
In his office close to the Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus, former imam-hatip pupil Huseyin Korkut believes the schools could work abroad if they remain true to “Islamic values.” But he bristles at the idea of the network being pigeonholed into helping solve international security problems.
“We are disturbed by this understanding that these schools would educate ‘soft’ Muslims that could easily adapt to the needs and requirements of the international authorities,” said the moustachioed economist. Calling himself a typical graduate of the system, Korkut works at Kirklareli University and is general director of the imam-hatip alumnae association.
Current students like Kerem Fazil Cinar, an 18-year-old final year pupil at Beyoglu Anadolu imam-hatip School, see the system as a refuge from the perils of the outside world.
“In the regular school would be the danger of meeting dangerous friends who have not inherited religious values,” said the earnest, bespectacled teenager, the beginnings of a beard sprouting from his chin.
“The environment would be more degenerate.”
Named after the preachers and prayer-leaders it was set up to train, the imam-hatip system has earned less media attention in the west than the moderate international network set up by exiled Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. There are many Gulen schools in Central Asia, and other outposts in the Balkans and Western Europe.
Last month, Afghanistan’s Education Minister Farooq Wardak visited an imam-hatip school in Ankara and declared the system could be a model for moderate religious education in his country. Pakistan’s ambassador to Turkey has said the imam-hatip system was discussed in recent high-level talks. And Wardak’s visit followed a Russian delegation, including the deputy minister of education, which came to see the schools last year.
“An education system should not just be an education, it should be a tool to fight extremism,” Wardak said, adding that he was impressed by the way the imam-hatip school combined religious instruction with other subjects.
“We need to make sure that graduates of religious schools ... also have skills and vocation, and they get a knowledge to be part of the mainstream of society.”
Overseas interest in the schools may also have been partly kindled by Turkey’s changing foreign policy priorities, as Ankara seeks to play a greater role among Muslim states — including Syria and Iran — and cools on long-term ally Israel.
Turkey’s largest ever foreign aid effort is now directed to Afghanistan, and last year it agreed to establish a high-level co-operation council with Pakistan. Russia is Turkey’s main trading partner.
In imam-hatip institutions, as in every school in the country, images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — the founder of the Turkish Republic — are on display. Students can tackle Arabic passages describing the Prophet Mohammad’s journey to Medina in classrooms also displaying Ataturk’s address to Turkish youth.
“There has always been a tension between orthodoxy and heterodoxy within the framework of Turkish Islam,” said Professor M. Hakan Yavuz, of the University of Utah’s Middle East Centre.
“As a result Turkish Islam has these sites outside the control of orthodox Islam, and remains more pluralist, more tolerant.”
But by singling out imam-hatip schools, Afghanistan’s minister may unwittingly have been treading on deep Turkish sensitivities.
The network — which with high standards and low costs proved popular with conservative Turkish families in the past — was targeted after senior generals pushed out Turkey’s first Islamist-led government in 1997.
Whereas in the second half of the 1990s about 600 imam-hatip schools across the country educated half a million pupils, after what was known as the “post-modern coup,” imam-hatip middle schools for pupils aged 11-14 were abolished.
Even more damaging were the changes to the university admission system, which calculates the relevance of subjects studied at school to a student’s proposed university course. Modifications after 1997 meant that — unless they chose to study religion — imam-hatip students found their grades devalued against those of applicants from conventional schools.
Waning prospects for higher education diminished the appeal of imam-hatip schools. Today around 450 educate 120,000 pupils. The AKP has worked towards their rehabilitation, but it has not succeeded yet in changing university entrance requirements.
It is in this context that students like Cinar experience the system. Gathered in a mosque in the heart of the old city with two fellow students — including Nur Sumeyye Karaoglan, a quiet girl in a patterned headscarf — the young man’s comments reflect an anger with Turkey’s secular establishment that makes nonsense of such distinctions as “radical” and moderate.”
“Surely religion should have a public role,” he said — a view that flies in the face of Turkey’s 87 years of secularism. “Not only in Turkey, but throughout the world.”
Sitting among glass-walled cloisters, he warmed to the theme of Turkey’s suppression of the imam-hatip network, and by extension of its alumni, saying his country needed men like him to stand up for religion and traditional values.
“We want Turkish society to feel that it is right to fear us,” he said.
Over their tea, his fellow pupils murmured in approval.
“I am very proud to be an imam-hatip student,” said Karaoglan, 16, the only girl in the group. “I feel it is in line with human nature.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith