ISTANBUL, Turkey — Children crowd into a large, open room an hour drive from Peshawar, Pakistan, their young bodies packed together despite the lingering heat. A small boy with a serious face sits in the back, a copy of the Quran on the cement floor beside him.
Madrasas like this have come to dominate much of rural education in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the state has forgotten its children and the mullahs have room to step in.
But with the Taliban insurgency going strong and a rising Islamic militancy in Pakistan, experts worry that such schools — which often push a more fundamentalist brand of Islam than is traditional in these countries — have become fertile recruiting grounds for the Taliban.
With their own public education systems in shambles, however, Afghanistan and Pakistan are beginning to look to Turkey’s brand of Islamic education as a potential antidote to madrasas where there is often little offered beyond rote memorization of the Quran.
“Through education you are, in one form or another, controlling the political socialization of the upcoming generation,” said Iren Ozgur, a Turkish-American academic at New York University who has studied Turkey’s imam-hatip system.
The imam-hatip syllabus devotes just 40 percent of study to religious topics, including Arabic and Islamic law. Secular topics like math, science and literature fill the rest of the time.
Earlier this year, education ministers from Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Ankara to sign a protocol on cooperation in education.
“I visited a few imam-hatip schools in Ankara and saw that they give a balanced education there,” said Farooq Wardak, the minister of education in Afghanistan. “Learning from their experiences, we will be able to achieve a balance in our own Islamic education system.”
According to U.N. figures only 12.6 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, only 63 percent of children finish primary school education and less than 3 percent were enrolled in higher education as of 2008.
They are hardly the only nations eyeing Turkey’s imam-hatip system. The schools already exist in Bulgaria, and Russia wasn’t far behind in sending a delegation south to examine the imam-hatip model as a potential way to manage their own growing Muslim population.
Despite the attention, however, there is hardly a consensus on whether Turkey’s system is the right way to bring Muslim youth back from the madrasas — and nowhere is the system more controversial than in Turkey itself.
A predominantly Muslim country, Turkey was established on a rigid platform of secularism. The schools were founded in the 1920s to educate Muslim preachers and prayer-leaders. But with more than 500 imam-hatip schools in Turkey educating more than 100,000 students they have since become incubators for Turkey’s rising Muslim elite. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended an imam-hatip school himself, as did one-third of his party’s MPs.
Having religious education integrated into the state system has long been a tough pill to swallow for Turkish secularists. After senior generals pushed out the country’s first Islamist-led government in 1997, the military enforcers of secularism targeted the imam-hatip system and attendance plummeted. Changes to the university admission system soon after meant that students studying at imam-hatip schools had points deducted from their university entrance exams, effectively banning them from Turkey’s most prestigious universities.
Under the governing Justice and Development Party, whose pro-Islamic background is infamous, the decision was passed last summer to end these systemic inequalities — but not without protest.
“Many of the problems we are seeing in Turkey today are very much a product of the imam-hatip schools,” said Professor Hakan Yavuz of the University of Utah’s Middle East Center. “You see this new moral code being formed; those who drink are bad, those who date women are bad, if you are gay you should be excluded, if not killed.”
“Is this the type of country that wants to join the EU?”
Others, like Ozgur, argue that the imam-hatip schools actually curb Islamic extremism by bringing religious education under state control and within a system of checks and balances.
“The moment you close the schools you will start to see these illegal madrasas opening up,” she argued. “And then there is no way to control what they are saying, how they are influencing the kids, the religious rhetoric of the country.”
The schools are a branch of the ministry of education, which approves and monitors the curriculum, books and teachers.
But can imam-hatip schools — established within the confines of Turkey’s secular structure — work in other countries? The curriculum is easy enough to transfer but what about the teachers? Ironically, the very secularist check that makes the imam-hatip schools so contentious in Turkey may be precisely why they work here.
“The Islam of Turkey is different from that of Saudi [Arabia] or Kuwait, and especially Iran,” said Yavuz. “The notion of the state is paramount here, where secular reforms have forced Islamic discourse to adapt.”
Critics worry that in countries lacking a strong secular foundation, the schools, if built, may fail to serve as the moderate alternative they are meant to provide.
“Here you have a class on jihad, but it is structured by the education ministry in a way that does not challenge the secular values of the Turkish Republic,” said Ozgur. “But can you guarantee that the teachers you get in Pakistan or Afghanistan will be able to do that?”
Still, as Turkey’s regional profile continues to rise it is increasingly being looked upon to play a greater role among its eastern neighbors. For many, education is the next frontier.
“If they can find a way to transfer the fundamentals of these schools, then in effect Turkey would be helping to spread a form of Islam that is more liberal and moderate across the Middle East,” said Ozgur.