Parents of school-age children protest in Istanbul on September 15. Photo posted on Twitter by Sinan Dogan

Is your child struggling academically in school? If you lived in Turkey, the state would likely place your child in an Islamic religious school for their secondary education.

Turkey introduced the new measure this semester and many parents are furious. Some families view this as forced religious education that frequently differs from their own values, and are vocally protesting.

In 2014, school authorities decided that students would sit exams before moving from primary to secondary school. Their marks in these exams would determine what type of school they went to.

"The highest-scoring students are allowed to choose between a normal high school or a technical high school. But if a student’s scores fall below a certain number of points, then that student is simply placed in a school by the state. It has come to our attention that these children are systematically placed in an Imam Hatip school, even though that isn’t mentioned in the law", says Yasemin Zeytinoglu, a lawyer and a member of the parent’s association Okuluma Dokumna.

Founded to train future imams, the Imam Hatip schools are religious secondary schools that accept any student who wants to follow a curriculum largely centred on Sunni Islam. [Editor’s note: While Sunni Islam is the majority religion in Turkey, there are many religious minorities.] Out of the 1.2 million students who took the placement exam last June, 40,000 were enrolled in these religious schools.

Since mid-August, a diverse group of students and parents made up of Armenians, Kurds, atheists and moderate Sunnis have launched protests against this practice in several towns in Turkey. One of the groups most angered by this situation is the Alevi minority. There are roughly 12 million members of this religious community in Turkey, which account for about 15% of the Turkish population.

Parents protest on September 15 in Edirne.

Since mid-August, a diverse group of students and parents made up of Armenians, Kurds, atheists and moderate Sunnis have launched protests against this practice in several towns in Turkey. One of the groups most angered by this situation is the Alevi minority. There are roughly 12 million members of this religious community in Turkey, which account for about 15% of the Turkish population.

Marches led by the Alevi religious minority took off on September 15. Photo posted on Twitter by şenol akdağ.

While loosely linked to both Shi'ia Islam and Sufism, Alevism recognises other prophets in addition to Mohammad. They also consider the Bible, the Torah, the Book of Psalms and the Quran as all having the same degree of importance. At Alevi places of worship, called çemevis, men and women pray side by side.

"I can’t accept Alevi children being forced to say Muslim prayers at school"

Ali Kenanoglu is director of the Alevi Cultural Centre in the northern Turkish city of Huybar. He has participated in these recent protests.

If parents refuse to let their child be enrolled in the local Imam Hatip school, then they have to send their child to a school much farther away or pay tuition at a private school [Editor’s note: School fees can reach up to 15,000 Turkish livres, or 8,000 euros, per year]. Basically, this means that families who don’t have much money are forced to accept their child’s placement. For me, what’s going on is very clear. President Erdogan [Editor’s note: Elected in August, moderate Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously been prime minister since 2003] wants to create a generation of young believers who will all follow the principles of Sunni Islam. But Alevi beliefs have nothing to do with those beliefs.

Turkey’s schools are becoming Islamised. Now, in public schools, there are small prayer rooms. The school curriculum is steeped in Islam. I have nothing against Sunnism but I can’t accept Alevi children being forced to say Muslim prayers at school.

The number of Imam Hatip schools is growing. Because Alevi beliefs are considered heresy, it’s forbidden to show your faith. Sending our children to these schools in like torture, and it’s also a form of religious assimilation. In the long term, it will kill our culture.

Classes on the life of Mohammad

In the past few years, the Alevi community has launched several protest movements calling for the Turkish government to respect their rights, especially within the education sphere. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of an Alevi who contested the fact that his son was forced to take religious classes at a public school. The Alevi community has also spoken out against frequent aggressions on its members in public spaces as well as attacks on çemevis, which are not recognised as places of worship by the state.

Aside from the Alevi community, numerous other non-Sunni communities have also denounced the growing Islamisation of Turkey’s schools and Turkish society at large. In 2012, Erdogan’s government changed the length of compulsary education from 8 years to 12 years, and ignited controversy by allowing students to enter Hatip schools at the second-level of their primary education and not just for secondary school.

"All second-level primary schools are supposed to offer elective classes to their students,” says lawyer Yasemin Zeytinoglu. “But the administrators choose this list of classes and, often, there are only classes linked to Islam: the Life of Mohammed, the history of Islam, etc… and when a student asks for a different type of class, often he is told that the demand is not big enough to create it.” Zeytinoglu also deplores the rising number of Hatip schools across the country.

President Erdogan has never hid his desire to promote religious education. In 2012, he said that he wanted to create "a religious youth" and said atheists amounted to “drug addicts”.