President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey keeps making global headlines. First it was for claiming that Muslims discovered the New World. Then it was for asserting that you “cannot put women and men on an equal footing.” Last week, it was for supporting the arrest, by Turkish police, of a number of journalists. But in the long run, it is his reforms of the Turkish education system that will likely be the most influential — and detrimental — to the global competitiveness of the country’s next generation.
Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan backed a proposal by Turkey’s National Education Council to make Ottoman Turkish — an older version of the language, written in Arabic letters — mandatory in religious high schools, and available as an elective in secular high schools. Flouting earlier rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, the council also proposed that religious education be compulsory from age six. The president’s response to sharp criticism of these initiatives from Turkish politicians and civil groups was characteristic: The changes would take place “whether they like it or not,” Mr. Erdogan said.
In other words, as is often the case in Turkey, a war over ideology dominated the agenda, while the practical needs of Turkey’s future generations were overlooked. The National Education Council did not put any emphasis on foreign language instruction, for example, despite the fact that Turks generally fare poorly when it comes to speaking any language other than their own — particularly languages like English, Chinese or Arabic that could help Turkish businesses grow, both in the region and globally. Nor was there any emphasis on critical thinking or democratic values — the very qualities that could help transform Turkey’s insular, rigid and intolerant political culture.
Some might view these proposals as a sign of Turkey’s regression from an open-minded, secular past, initiated some 90 years ago by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to a dogmatic Islamist era spearheaded by Mr. Erdogan. But it would be more accurate to say that Turkey is merely replacing one official dogma with another.
Like Mr. Erdogan, Ataturk devalued critical thinking, preferring citizens to accept the truths he decreed as an all-knowing leader. During his single-party rule from 1923 to 1938, Ataturk tried to reshape the nation according to his Kemalist ideology, making sweeping reforms in culture, religion, education, language and science. Some facets of the Kemalist program were relatively eccentric — like Ataturk’s pseudoscientific thesis that prehistoric Turks in Central Asia were the progenitors of human civilization.
Today, after over a decade as prime minister and with plans for at least another decade in power as president, Mr. Erdogan seems to be embarking on a similar mission of nation-reshaping. He is using a language and symbolism that is increasingly similar to Ataturk’s; like Ataturk, he is attempting to teach his people the “correct” version of their history. And, like Ataturk’s, his political opponents are branded as traitors.
The big difference, however, is ideology. Ataturk was a secular nationalist who wanted to Westernize Turkey. (It was Ataturk who abolished the Ottoman language, in favor of a more modern, Latinized Turkish.) Mr. Erdogan is a conservative Muslim nationalist who sees Westernization as a historic mistake.
But wasn’t Mr. Erdogan the same leader who once put Turkey on a path toward European Union membership? That was certainly the case during the initial phase of rule by his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., from 2002 to 2010. At the time, Turkey was under the thumb of Kemalist generals who threatened elected politicians. Hence, the European Union, and its liberal democracy, looked like a savior for Mr. Erdogan. Yet once the military was subdued, the incentive to Europeanize began to fade.
Now Mr. Erdogan even appears to be convinced of a great Western conspiracy to topple his rule; a “supra intellect”— none other than the United States, according to some of his supporters in the media — that manipulates the Middle East and creates trouble for the glorious “New Turkey.” The irony is that despite all this anti-Western rhetoric in domestic politics, Turkey remains a member of NATO; Ankara still welcomes Western leaders; and Mr. Erdogan vowed, just last month, to “strengthen the strategic partnership between Turkey and America.”
The deeper trouble is that while Mr. Erdogan’s Muslim nationalism may boost Turkish self-confidence, it risks depriving the next generation of the skills they will need to succeed in a global economy. Sure, Turkey boasts some success stories — like Turkish Airlines, which is frequently ranked Europe’s best. But it still does not have a highly skilled, creative or innovative workforce. To raise the latter, Turkey needs a much more globalist approach to education, and stronger commitments to the rule of law and meritocratic advancement (the lack of which is rightly recognized by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu).
The masters of the “New Turkey” must curb their lust for power and control and help build an open society that rewards talent. If they don’t, they will go down in history as a poor imitation of the Kemalist “Old Turkey” they have criticized for decades — with their own official dogma, cult of personality, and endless witch hunts for enemies within. And Turkey will not move forward, but will fall into the vicious cycle once outlined by the great medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: Conquerors of a system eventually adopt the habits of that system; hope for change lies only in newcomers from the wilderness.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.