AKP's White Revolution

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak analyzes the Justice and Development Party's radical reforms in education and its proposed marriage regulation.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) have entrenched their power over the Turkish state. In tandem with the April 2017 constitutional referendum's expansion of presidential powers, the entire state institution is undergoing comprehensive reform, with drastic changes to Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK), Police, and Judiciary. In this context, the recent alteration of the country's national education curriculum and the proposed amendment of marriage regulations both reveal prevailing fault lines between conservatives and secularists.

Last month, Turkish Minister of National Education İsmet Yılmaz made a dramatic announcement about the new national curriculum's main elements. Yılmaz stated that as an ideology, Atatürkism will be removed from the school textbooks. Correspondingly, Atatürk's biography will be significantly shortened.[1] Although the AKP had already eliminated Atatürkism as the education system's official ideology on September 15, 2012, until this announcement, the ideology had not been expunged from the textbooks.[2]

Yılmaz’s announcement was followed by the noteworthy addition of a section on the July 15, 2016 coup attempt to the school textbooks. The section was said to emphasize the importance of democracy, elected governments, and Turkey's history of military coups. This post-2016 coup education policy constitutes the opposite of that implemented following Turkey's 1960 coup. The post-1960 coup textbooks (used from 1960-1980) glorified TSK's military intervention on May 27, 1960, crowning it the "White Revolution" (Ak Devrim).[3] The coup perpetrators of 1960 declared May 27 a holiday of Freedom and Constitution (27 Mayıs Hürriyet ve Anayasa Bayramı). This holiday was instituted in 1963 and remained in effect until the enactment of the 1982 constitution, which was the product of a coup in 1980. 

Thus, the AKP's agenda to design its own imagined community by indoctrinating its own national day is not a new phenomenon for Turkey. However unlike the White Revolution of 1960, the AK* Party's 2016 White Revolution does not attempt to legitimize itself with Atatürk's legacy. Rather, as İsmet Yılmaz openly declares, the new school textbooks will teach the students that the citizens who resisted the July 15 coup were participating in Jihad. An AKP member of the Turkish parliament's national education commission, Ahmet Hamdi Çamlı, summarized his government's stance:

Jihad is the primary component of Islam. It even outranks prayer (Namaz – Salaat). As for the Ottoman sultans, in order to not abandon jihad, they chose to not go on Hajj. Our ministry made a very good decision. If prayers are religion's tent pole, then Jihad is the tent itself... It is useless to teach Mathematics to a child who has no idea of Jihad.[4]

The Republican People's Party's (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) made a notable response to this addition to the curriculum. Metin Lütfi Baydar, a secular opposition member of the education commission, accused the government of raising a vindictive generation of future militia members.[5] Despite CHP’s outcry, the value of Jihad had already appeared in the 2013 Islamic law (Fıkıh) textbook of the İmam Hatip Schools.[6] This indicates that İmam Hatip's curriculum is permeating the secular curriculum, as İmam Hatip’s values are becoming those of the Turkish national education system.

Additionally, the education ministry made a significant change by replacing Darwin's theory of evolution with Creationism. In Turkey, this subject has evoked heated public debates since 1987,[7] when then Minister of National Education Vehbi Dinçerler, deeply influenced by an ideology called Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, attempted to remove Darwinism from the curriculum. Like 1987, this decision received furious public criticism, resulting in the current Minister of National Education's indication that universities can still teach the theory of evolution.[8] Despite this concession, in July, Istanbul's Marmara University refrained from publishing an academic article on the theory of evolution, stating that the publication would harm the institution.[9]

Unsurprisingly, each of these developments has been protested by supporters of secular and opposition parties. However, the AKP's parliamentary majority and alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi – MHP) - which has allowed for extension of the state of emergency, boosting of the president's powers, and imprisonment of Kurdish political leaders - have left CHP without the capacity to counteract changes in the national curriculum.

Meanwhile, the AKP's conservative policies are not limited to education. The proposal that Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı – Diyanet) affiliated muftis be allowed to perform civil marriages alongside officials of the Registrar General of Marriages has also sparked friction. Similar to curriculum reform, this proposal triggered secular protest. The Turkish Bar Association’s (Türkiye Barolar Birliği – TBB) Chairman Metin Feyzioğlu higlighted the ways in which this proposal threatened secularism,[10] and the Istanbul Bar (İstanbul Barosu) warned against the creation of a dual judicial system.[11] Despite criticism, the AKP and the MHP insist on the proposal's advantages, claiming that the new regulation would encourage the rural Turkish population to perform civil marriage alongside traditional Islamic marriage. The crediblity of this argument is undermined by the Turkish Constitutional Court’s 2015 decision to invalidate the Turkish Penal Code, Article 203, Paragraphs 5 and 6, which punished religious officials and couples who performed religious marriage in the absence of civil marriage.

In 2015, women's rights organizations decried this ruling as eroding Turkish women's rights. Similarly, women's rights organizations severely criticize the government for proposing to turn the current functioning civil law into a hollow one. One of these organizations' key criticisms is that the Mufti Reform lays the groundwork for child marriage. From this perspective, a mufti performing a marriage would be willing to overlook a child bride's age. Moreover, if the proposed Mufti Reform is passed, it would allow for oral registration of children born outside of medical institutions, who would then lack written documents. According to women's rights organizations, this would facilitate rapists' capacity to remain unidentified by local authorities. On a related note, the AKP's plan for pardoning sexual criminals, including rapists, was withdrawn in November 2016 due to public outcry.[12]

Despite substantial protest, reflecting the deep fragmentation of Turkish society, the AKP administration continues to carry out its twenty-first century White Revolution, attempting to mold its conception of the ideal citizen. Like the pioneers of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis in the 1980s, the AKP seeks to utilize Islam as the glue for its New Turkey. That being said, the AKP has already surpassed its predecessors, implementing concrete measures that touch the daily lives of Turkish citizens. 

Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) at Tel Aviv University. He serves as the Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Middle East Network Analysis Desk’s publication, Beehive, and is co-editor of Turkeyscope.  hayeytan[at]tauex.tau.ac.il. 

[1] “Milli Eğitim Bakanı yeni müfredatı açıkladı,” Milliyet, July 18, 2017.

[2] "Atatürk İlkeleri kitaptan çıkarıldı," Hürriyet, September 15, 2012.

[3] For more details: Milli Güvenlik Bilgisi I – II – III (Istanbul, Milli Eğitim Basımevi, 1980), 297-302. (Note: This textbook was already in use prior to the 1980 military coup).

* Justice and Development Party; the AKP also uses "AK Party" (The White Party) as an acronym to dispatch a subliminal message to the Turkish public that the party is not corrupt.

[4] "Cihat, temel ibadetler başlığı altına alındı," Habertürk, July 22, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ahmet Ekşi et al., Fıkıh (Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 2013), p.168.

[7] Anat Lapidot, “Islamic activism in Turkey since the 1980 military takeover,” Terrorism and Political Violence 8:2 (2007): p.69.

[8] "‘Atatürk’te sıkıntı yok evrim üniversitede’," Vatan, February 9, 2017.

[9] "Marmara Üniversitesi’nden evrime dayalı makaleye ret: Bu dönemde sıkıntı yaşarız," Diken, July 24, 2017.

[10] "Barolar Birliği ‘kaygılı’: ‘Müftülük nikahı’ laik düzene doğrudan tehdit," Diken, July 26, 2017.

[11] "İstanbul Barosu ‘tehlike’ye işaret etti: Müftülük nikahı ayrım yaratacak," Diken, July 27, 2017.

[12] "AKP, tecavüzcülere af getiren tasarıyı geri çekti," Cumhuriyet, November 22, 2016.