CHE7 Kurdish-language university education and secularism in Turkey

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 5 18:14:42 UTC 2004

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,
>>From the issue dated November 28, 2003

Secular Universities and a Moderate Islamist Government Clash in Turkey

Bitter disagreements over Turkey's higher-education policy -- among the
strongly secular establishment, the moderate pro-Islamist government,
left-wing students, Kurds, and others -- have boiled over into public
protests, some of them violent, in recent weeks. In Ankara, the capital,
at least 60 people were injured in early November as students
demonstrating against tight state control over the universities clashed
with riot police.

The protests marked the 22nd anniversary of the creation, by the then
military government, of the Higher Education Council, which put Turkey's
formerly autonomous universities under close state oversight. More than
1,000 students rallied in a central square in Ankara and threw stones at
the police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons, and truncheons.

 In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, police officers used tear gas to
up another protest against the council, by about 500 young people
affiliated with the country's largest legal Kurdish party. They object to
the council's strict nationalistic control over the universities. After
students at many universities began a petition campaign for optional
Kurdish-language courses two years ago, scores of organizers were
suspended from their studies and several dozen were charged with terrorist

At the end of October, on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the
modern Turkish republic, thousands of university students, professors, and
administrators joined a peaceful protest in Ankara against
higher-education legislation proposed by the government. Rectors of almost
all the 53 public and 23 private universities attended. Faced with such
pressure, the government withdrew the bill.

The protesters objected to the bill's apparent goal of weakening strict
secular control over Turkey's universities. The bill would have given the
government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a moderate Islamist,
greater say over the composition of the Higher Education Council, which
exercises strong control over the choice of senior administrators at all
public universities.

Pro-secularists say the council would then have become more favorable to
approving pro-Islamist rectors.

The Head-scarf Rule

Nur Serter, vice rector of Istanbul University, said that fundamentalists
would probably be elected at universities in the poorer, eastern half of
Turkey. The university administrators also believe the government wants to
relax Turkey's strict rules against the public display of religious dress.
"The government wants to allow people to enter the university in head
scarves," said Ms. Serter.

In recent years the Higher Education Council has stepped up enforcement of
the ban on head scarves on campuses, and prevented any use of the Kurdish
language, on the grounds that such activities would encourage religious
and ethnic conflict.

University officials also objected to provisions of the withdrawn bill
that would have ended discrimination against graduates of public religious
high schools who were seeking to enroll in public universities.

Istanbul University, the country's largest public institution, provided 10
buses and reserved 350 train seats to send about 1,000 faculty members and
students to the rally in Ankara. But Ms. Serter said no one was coerced
into going.

University administrations in Turkey are almost all strongly secular,
since the Higher Education Council does not approve, for senior posts,
candidates who question the official state policy. The country's faculty
members also tend to be secular.

However, many professors are uncomfortable with the authorities'
heavy-handed tactics against peaceful student opposition to state policy,
such as the crackdown on those who petitioned for Kurdish-language
courses, and the expulsion in recent years of hundreds of female students
who refused to remove their Islamic-style head scarves.

The government has asked the Inter-University Council, made up of the
country's rectors, to propose new legislation. The body, however, is
split, between those who want to work with the moderate Islamist
government to seek common ground on higher-education policy, and those
hard-line secularists who reject any dialogue with the current government.
Section: International
Volume 50, Issue 14, Page A40


Copyright  2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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