A report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has found that new textbooks for Turkey’s compulsory religious education, released in 2012, are an improvement on the previous ones but they still “encourage intolerance” and “reinforce negative stereotypes”, said USCIRF Chairman Robert P George.
The report, made public in December, points out that the inaccuracies in the textbooks’ content on non-Muslim religions mean that Muslim children are not taught correctly about non-Muslim religions and neither are non-Muslim children taught correctly about their own religions. “Students learn about Judaism and Christianity not based upon what Jews and Christians believe, but rather what Islam teaches about those religions,” writes researcher Ziya Meral in the report.
In relation to Christianity, one of the textbooks wrongly teaches: “When Jesus reached 30 years of age, Allah gave him the duty of being a prophet. He then began inviting people to believe in Allah. At the start, only 12 people believed in his call. They are called the ‘disciples.’ The holy book of Christianity is Incil. The four Incils written by and known with the names of their writers as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the most famous… Christians accept prophethood of other prophets besides Prophet Muhammad.”
The textbooks also disparagingly portray Christian missionaries as users of “methods of cheating and tricking” in order “to force [people] to change their religion”. Such “fear-mongering”, says the USCIRF, may be responsible for anti-Christian incidents in Turkey.
Contributing also to the sensationalist sentiment towards non-Muslim religions, the textbooks juxtapose atheism and Satanism. And in regards to Judaism, the sixth-grade textbook tells the story of a well that is owned by a Jewish man in Medina that was then bought from him by Caliph Othman and made freely available to all. The story, says the USCIRF, “risks reinforcing negative stereotypes and grave injustices towards Jews”.
Turkey’s Alevi (a branch of Shia Islam common in Turkey) community has also complained of being sidelined in the content of the textbooks. In September 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favour of a group of 14 Alevis who complained that their children were not being taught Alevi traditions because the compulsory education syllabus taught only the Sunni branch of Islam.
In its ruling in the case (Mansur Yalcin and Others v. Turkey, no. 21163/11), the ECHR said that Turkey had breached Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which requires states to respect the right of parents’ religious and philosophical convictions in education – and asked Turkey “to remedy the situation without delay, in particular by introducing a system whereby pupils could be exempted from religion and ethics classes without their parents having to disclose their own religious or philosophical convictions”.
At present, Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates that religious education is compulsory. This takes place from the fourth grade to the twelfth grade and consists of around one to two hours per week.
In principle, Turkey allows Jewish and Christian children to be exempted from religious education if their religion is stated on their national identity card. However, some parents have complained that schools refused to allow their non-Muslim children to be exempted, citing the non-availability of an alternative as the reason.
According to the USCIRF, the new textbooks mark an improvement in that they “contain new sections on Alevi traditions … and omit derogatory statements about non-Sunni Muslims religions”. Last year, however, Barnabas reported that a history book for use in grade eight (13-14 year-olds) classes describes the actions taken by the Turkish authorities during the genocide – in which at least 1.5 million Armenian and Assyrian Christians died – as “necessary deportations”. Christians are depicted as tools of foreign nations committed to seeing the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the genocide.