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Violence in Turkish schools mirrors social and economic crisis

The murder of a headmaster of a school in Istanbul at the hands of a student seeking ‘revenge’ for a previous expulsion order has rekindled the spotlight on classroom violence in Turkey and on the education system in general.

The terrible event has shaken consciences and prompted several teachers’ unions to call for a day of strike action, because it is not “an isolated incident” but the result of a long-standing policy of “discrediting” the teaching profession.

However, it is ‘important to point out that this is the tip of the iceberg, a crisis in the education system, which adds up to strong social tensions,’ Fr Claudio Monge, a Dominican, explains to AsiaNews, who has long been in the country’s economic and commercial capital where he is parish priest of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

‘These attacks,’ he continues, ‘are often instigated and originated not so much by students, but rather by family members, and it is reductive to link the issue of violence only to the school environment’.

Headmaster killed

The 7 May shooting of İbrahim Oktugan, 74-year-old headmaster of a public school is at the centre of the current media mailstrom which is fomenting public disquiet.  The shooter was a student who acted in revenge because he had been expelled on disciplinary grounds.

The man died in hospital from his serious injuries, while the young man – a minor identified by the initials Y.K., from an Iraqi immigrant family – was stopped by the police as he tried to escape. He is now locked up in a juvenile prison awaiting trial for premeditated murder. 

The story has raised controversy on several fronts: from the media narrative to the link with the world of immigration, which further fuels waves of xenophobia, to the issue of school violence that has long seemed structural.

Episodes of bullying of classmates and teachers are happening with increasing frequency and occur as early as the age of six: according to the Education Monitoring 2020 study, one in three children has experienced attacks in the classroom, with 14% more among girls.

Alongside this is the issue of immigration, although there is no more significant incidence among those from abroad, not least because, only recently, a teacher was attacked by a (Turkish) student armed with a knife. And a pregnant teacher was assaulted by the parents of a pupil, also Turkish, with the press placing no particular emphasis on nationality, unlike the murder of the headmaster.

Organisations in the school sector, even those traditionally linked to the government and majority parties, expressed their discontent with a day of strike action.

However, violence is an issue that does not only concern education and has been growing – and worsening – over the last 10 years also due to discriminatory policies pursued by the executive, starting with gender inequality. Linked to this is the clash between social classes and ethnic groups, distrust of justice and a general increase in anger and discontent, coupled with mutual intolerance. 

A ‘social issue’

What trade unions and authoritative experts call the “school emergency” is actually part of a broader issue that embraces education, society and Turkish politics in the last two decades, “in which the education system has been weakened. In Türkiye – explains Fr. Monge – compulsory schooling applies from the age of six to 17, the enrollment rate in primary school [according to official statistics] is around 94%, which drops to 91% due to a first and partial school dropout in secondary school and remains constant with higher education”.

“The problem – he continues – is linked to a change in the very soul of the nation, the violence is the reflection of social tensions due to a dramatic economic crisis and major cuts in education funds”.

The government had promised “policies to protect children, to free them from child labor and compulsory education up to the age of 17 was going in this direction, but the significant decline in family and social policies” did not allow the violent drift to be stemmed.

“The number of children between 15 and 17 years old working on the streets has increased by 110 thousand units compared to 2011 – underlines the religious, director of the DoSt-I (Dominican Study Institute) study center in Istanbul and since 2014 consultant to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue – and the rate of increase in the number of child workers, which has reached 620 thousand, is 20%.

At the same time, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security has seen its budget for the ‘fight against child labor’ reduced from around 1.2 million euros in 2023 to just over 825 thousand euros this year. More money to the arms industry [as we previously reported], also due to the driving force represented by the war in Ukraine”.

Then there is the issue of school curricula, which in 22 years of the Akp government (President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) has undergone four revisions, the latest recently approved.

‘In two decades there have been significant changes,’ explains Fr Monge, ‘linked to a moral-religious vision of life and society. About 35 per cent of the material has been cut from the new curriculum, with the theory of evolution limited to secondary biology, and creationism funded by some Protestant Christian denominations in the United States.’

They then complain of a lack of civic education, at the expense of a ‘religiously motivated moralisation of behaviour leading to the ideal student being considered not on the basis of intellectual preparation, but on the basis of Islamic-inspired moral dictates’.

Linked to this is an increase in religious schools (imam hatip), with the support of the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), among the few ‘to have benefited from a constant increase in funding.

In Istanbul alone, an estimated 10,000 children have been diverted from public education to illegal religiously inspired schools. We must not think,’ he explains, “of a Taliban-style indoctrination, but rather of a weakening of critical capacity” functional to a more manoeuvrable future electorate.

Education at the service of power 

The heavy government intervention on the independence of Turkish universities and the strong control over rectorships, following the authoritarian measures that followed the failed coup in 2016, have caused a real ‘brain drain abroad’.

The battles for the public education of men and women led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern presidential Turkey, who ‘had made it a model in the vanguard of the Islamic world for decades’, seem distant.

These are all elements at play, stresses the Dominican, ‘but we must pay attention to the overall picture and understand that violence in schools is only the tip of the iceberg’.

Depressing education, failing to support the future of the younger generations by blocking their entry into the world of work are issues linked to the serious economic crisis, also a consequence of clientelistic policies that have increased corruption.

‘A nemesis,’ comments Fr Monge, ‘because this had been precisely one of the issues that had driven Erdogan’s rise. But corruption remains widespread and endemic, ‘laid bare by the devastation caused by the earthquake of February 2023 with the crumbling of entire, luxurious, recently built buildings’ whose contracts had been awarded to companies and personalities linked to the top echelons of power.

So many signs that perhaps indicate the beginning of the president’s downward parabola, in spite of his confirmed activism in foreign policy. ‘In the last presidential elections he won, but did not triumph,’ recalls the cleric.

‘And the recent vote for the administrative elections confirmed a general defeat for the Akp in the country’s main cities, as well as in Izmir, which is a traditional fiefdom of the opposition, and with the confirmation of the outgoing mayors of Ankara and, above all, Istanbul’. Turkey’s future is at stake in the country’s economic and cultural capital, also because Erdogan himself has always used the vote in his hometown as a referendum on his person.

‘In this perspective,’ he explains, ‘the figure of the current mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu is emerging, who is opposite in style to the president not only in his message and content, but also in his calm tones that break away from the populist approach. Even in the court cases brought against him,’ he concludes, “he has never attacked his political opponents or the judiciary head-on”. 

Source: Asia News