When looking for hopeful signs that Islam and democracy can indeed coexist,
the international community turns to Turkey. So it was a disappointment
recently when Turkey’s president vetoed a law that would grant graduates of
religious high schools equal access to the nation’s secular universities.
The veto is a setback to religious freedom and equal opportunity in Turkey,
preconditions for a flourishing democracy. That said, the debate over
education reform is itself encouraging as it engages the central problem of
Turkish democracy — how to build an inclusive secular state when the
majority’s religion, as interpreted and practiced in much of the world,
does not recognize a separation of mosque and state.
The education bill was passed by the conservative, Islamist-leaning
majority in Turkey’s Parliament, in power since 2002. It was opposed by
Turkey’s staunchly secular elite, a group that includes the military and
has long dominated virtually all walks of Turkish life.
This elite fears that religiously trained university graduates may become a
farm team for conservative, even fundamentalist, political parties. But in
their fear, they run the risk of undermining Turkey’s democracy. More
secular education, not less, is the best protection from fundamentalism.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who graduated from a religious school
himself and supports the education reform, assumed office in 2003 on a wave
of popular support but under a cloud of suspicion for his Islamist roots.
Those fears have proved unfounded. Mr. Erdogan has worked hard to prepare
Turkey for talks on joining the European Union, and displayed skillful
diplomacy on Cyprus.
When the education reform was passed in May, Turkish financial markets
dropped on fears that the military might intervene to defend the secular
order. The worst didn’t happen. The president vetoed the bill on legalistic
grounds and the ruling party plans to redraft the proposal.
The issue needs addressing. Turkey’s 536 religious schools are
coeducational and, with the exception of Koran study, teach the same
curriculum as nonreligious schools. Their 64,500 students are as much
Turkey’s future as are the sons and daughters of the secular elite