Protestors march with placards reading 'Enough! Don't turn our schools into Imam Hatips' in Istanbul this summer. Photo: AFP
Protestors march with placards reading 'Enough! Don't turn our schools into Imam Hatips' in Istanbul this summer. Photo: AFP

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” asked the taxi driver. We were speeding down one of Ankara’s most fashionable streets. It was the third time in as many hours that I had been asked that question by Turks worried about their country’s immediate future.

I looked around. Outwardly there seemed no cause for alarm. Smart high-rise buildings with gleaming plate glass windows soared above us proclaiming prosperous living standards. On the sidewalks, throngs of women in fashionable Western clothing were out shopping. Only one that I could see was wearing an Islamic headscarf, which was typical for this part of town, but untypical for Turkey these days.

Although normal life outwardly continues, most Turks are increasingly gripped by uncertainty about their future. They have many reasons to be uneasy. A war with Kurdish militants in southeast Anatolia is claiming around ten soldiers’ lives a week; bomb attacks from the Islamic State group and the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Istanbul and Ankara and other cities have claimed nearly 400 lives in recent years. The tourism industry, one of the country’s main money-spinners, is at a low ebb. A botched coup attempt in July has been followed by tens of thousands of arrests in a purge of suspected government opponents which is still widening.

But behind the turbulence lies a deeper transformation: the jettisoning of Turkey’s pro-Western secular orientation and a shift toward a conformist Sunni Islam state and society. Fourteen years after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power, the country’s secularized urban classes, people whose lifestyles and ideas are still more or less those of any Western town, know the tide of history is running against them. They have few if any friends or allies in the Western world of which they believe themselves to be an offshoot.

“The problem begins these days when you try to educate your children,” said Özge, a young housewife. “The amount of religious instruction they are getting rises steadily and it interferes with mainstream education. Arabic is starting to appear as one of the main foreign languages. But I find that none of my American friends understand when I try to explain.”

Islamic schools — in theory designed to train imams and religious officials — are supplanting secular schools in the state system even in Istanbul and Ankara. Some people welcome the change. Yunus Akdoğan, a manual worker in a small Anatolian town, says “I want my son to go to an Imam school and become an imam.”

His 14-year old son standing beside him shifts uneasily. “I might not necessarily become an imam,” he says. But Yunus, a pious man who goes to mosques an hour before services officially start to listen to Koranic instruction, says his son will come round to his way of thinking.

Rash of protests

Just how this shift to religious instruction will affect the country’s economic future remains to be seen. Turkey’s main lycées (secondary schools), which have produced generations of the country’s most talented and intelligent figures, are under pressure and resent it.

Last June, Turkey’s graduating students turned their backs on headmasters in a rash of protests during graduation day ceremonies at top metropolitan lycées across Ankara, Istanbul, and other large towns. Parents say that although most of the teaching staff are still competent, school headmasters and other officials are being brought in to bring education into line with the “new” i.e. Islamized Turkey.

The protests were promptly condemned by ministers who hope, in the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to raise a “pious generation” in the country. Retribution became apparent last month. Just as the new school year began, it was announced that Vefa Lycée in Istanbul, one of Turkey’s top schools, was to become “an experimental school’, in a move which would lead to the replacement of all its teachers. Similar moves were announced in 155 top lycées, where all teachers of more than eight years experience — i.e. the secularist old guard — were to be reassigned.

However, a storm of protest from parents and students seems to have persuaded the Ministry of Education — for decades a stronghold of Islamist officials — to take a step backward. On September 28, it was announced that 1187 high school teachers are to keep their jobs.

To a society already racked by shock waves of this kind, the attempted military coup on July 15 was almost like a coup de grace as far as normal times are concerned. The events that night were shocking enough themselves. People tell you how fighter jets swooped low over the rooftops and buildings shook as bombs were dropped on the Grand National Assembly. It all came, quite literally, out of a clear blue sky.

“I had some foreign friends with me and when they saw the planes, they asked me if there was a revolution happening. I just laughed and said it was impossible. Then a few minutes later, I realized something was actually happening. At first I couldn’t believe it,” says Cengiz, a young civil servant.

The coup attempt — staged during a Friday evening in summer in defiance of the will of ordinary people — was quickly foiled, but something worse was to follow.

A few days later, with a three-month state of emergency declared, Cengiz and tens of thousands of other civil servants found themselves paying nervous visits to the personnel departments of their offices to see whether they were about to be sacked.

Coup conspiracy

Government officials linked to the Gulen movement, the ultra-secretive worldwide Sufi Brotherhood which seems to have been responsible for the coup conspiracy, were to be purged. Younger state employees, many of whom had been educated in Gulenist schools or universities, topped the list of those to go.

Cengiz had no links with the movement and stayed on, but he says around four out of five of his contemporaries went. They were known in the department to have links with Gulen.

According to Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey’s minister of justice, speaking at the end of September, proceedings have been started to date against 70,000 people of whom 32,000 have been formally charged and arrested. Just when, where, and how they will be brought to trial remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the swoops continue. Membership of Sufi Brotherhoods in Turkey is not published but is believed to run into millions, including most members of the cabinet, many of whom belong to the Naqsbhbandi Order. The Gulen movement was never as large, but its followers certainly run into tens of thousands, so the purge is enormous.

On top of that, over 200 private sector firms and banks with links to the Gülenists have also been seized and placed under the control of administrators. Some newspapers and TV channels have shut down after being seized.

Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, warned recently that those who have lost their jobs and their family members probably amount to around a million people. “What is going to become of them?” he asks.

But that is the sort of question most people in Turkey prefer not to ask too loudly as their country heads toward an unknown destination.