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Cablegate: Slippery Slope to Shari'a?: Istanbul Debates Akp

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (sbu) Summary: Ask anyone in Istanbul what's wrong with
the Turkish education system and you are likely to get the
same answer: overcrowded, under-funded schools tied up in
bureaucratic red tape. Fixing the problem, however, has been
the subject of considerable acrimonious political debate.
Critics charge that the last several governments have all
"used" education reform in attempts to solidify and expand
their support base, and that AK is similarly using the issue
as a back-door to achieving a secret aim to Islamicize Turkey
and Turkish society. Those defending AK's proposals for
higher education reform and some of its plans for education
as a whole say they would go a long way towards addressing
inherent injustices and much-needed reforms and might also
address a widespread desire for a more conservative and
religious environment in Istanbul's schools. End Summary.

2. (sbu) As schools across the city reopen after summer
recess, Istanbul residents are unhappy and worried that their
children are not getting an adequate education. One taxi
driver remarked that there is education "for the rich, but
not the poor" (i.e., the rich send their kids to private
schools), while a lower-class mother of three said that the
system offers "zilch." With 65 students per primary school
classroom in Istanbul (after the school day has already been
divided into separate morning and afternoon sessions), it is
clear there is a chronic shortage of rooms and teachers.
Only 10 percent of the students who take the national
university entrance exams are able to secure places in
Turkish universities (both private and public). Once at
university, both students and professors chafe under the
centralized restrictions and controls that have been in place
since the 1980 coup put an end to widespread student riots
and infighting.

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Higher Education Council (YOK) and University Reforms
--------------------------------------------- --------
3. (sbu) AK higher education reform proposals aimed at
reducing the authority and autonomy of the much-hated Higher
Education Council (YOK) have provoked a vigorous debate.
Critics we have talked to (including professionals,
educators, and the YOK Chairman) claim that rhetoric about
"democracy" and "efficiency" merely cloak a hidden Islamic
agenda. Specifically, they claim that decentralizing
education, by allowing professors to elect their own
administrators and rectors, for example, will "hand over
control" of the universities (beginning with Erzurum and
Marmara Universities) to the "Islamists." One university
administrator lamented that the AK party had actually "forced
him to defend YOK." The vice chairman of the Istanbul
Association of University Professors defended the proposals,
however, noting that while imperfect, they had incorporated
many of the association's suggestions.

Imam-Hatip (Preacher) Schools and Religious Education
--------------------------------------------- --------
4. (sbu) As "proof" of the government's secret Islamist
agenda, critics charge that AK wants to boost attendance in
the country's state-run imam-hatip (preacher) schools (of
which there are 26 in Istanbul, including the one Prime
Minister Erdogan attended), despite the fact that the number
of graduates far exceeds the need for imams. By amending a
point system for the national university entrance exam that
currently disadvantages graduates of vocational schools (only
8 percent of which are imam-hatip schools), AK would
roll-back what was a thinly-veiled and highly successful
effort initiated in 1997 to discourage families from sending
their children to imam-hatip schools. (Note: Imam-hatip
enrollment appears to have jumped by 80 percent this year in
Istanbul, at least in part on the expectation that the new
government would carry out its promises in this regard. End
Note.) Suspicious of anyone who sends their children to such
schools, critics worry that increasing numbers of religiously
conservative graduates (note: in addition to the normal
curriculum, imam-hatip students spend half of their class
time in religion courses) will go on to university and
eventually "infiltrate" the state bureaucracy. The head of
an Istanbul imam-hatip graduate association simply pointed to
the injustice of a system ("affecting all vocational schools,
not just imam-hatips") in which an imam-hatip student this
year received a perfect raw score on one of the national
exams and did not have enough "points" to get into any of the
university departments he had selected. The administrator of
an Istanbul imam-hatip school noted that the point system
isn't even "legal" according to existing laws. He also
defended the decision of parents to choose such schools, not
so their children will become imams, but so they can learn
about religion in a more "morally conservative" environment.

School Vouchers and Free Textbooks
5. (sbu) Another plan to send 10,000 poor students to private
high schools with government vouchers was already vetoed by
President Sezer on August 14 on the grounds that many of the
private schools selected for the program had been
"established by people for other reasons" (i.e., Islamist).
(Note: Many of the schools were reportedly established by
Fethullah Gulen and other tarikats or brotherhoods). Sezer's
decision was welcomed by many government critics who argued
that the vouchers would merely transfer government funds to
tarikat-run schools and educate future generations to be
prejudiced against secularism. Yet another project that has
yet to be finalized is a government promise to provide free
textbooks to students. An Istanbul-based NGO education
expert labeled this a "blatant hand-out" that the government
would almost certainly try to roll out shortly before next
year's local elections. A teachers' union representative
stopped short of accusing the government of seeking to
"rewrite" history, but speculated that the government would
almost certainly choose books that are more in line with
their political views and wondered aloud which government
crony would be awarded the publishing contract. The fact
that photos and "messages" of the PM and Education Minister
were included in some of the recently-distributed books has
already been labeled by critics as inappropriate propaganda.

6. (sbu) While almost all Istanbul residents agree on the
need for education reform, at least a substantial minority,
particularly among the secular elite, do not trust the AK
government to guide the process. There is no clear answer on
whether AK's reforms are intended to "islamicize" Turkey, but
they do at least represent an effort to address some of the
education system's shortcomings. The elements of the
discussion that draw the most direct fire (the voucher plan
and grumblings about the headscarf ban) still seem to command
a good deal of support among the general public in Istanbul.


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