The new academic year kicked off yesterday for around 15 million students and 650,000 teachers. Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu gave the country's first lecture devoted to democracy and discrimination at a school in İstanbul. Education experts welcomed the move but underlined that Turkey has a long way to go in its fight against discrimination.
President Abdullah Gül lauded the inclusion of such a course in curricula in a message he issued on the occasion of the start of the new school year. He focused on the importance of raising individuals who are respectful of human rights. “We give priority and great importance to the raising of new generations as individuals who are respectful of human rights, human beings and ideas, who are tolerant, able to develop their skills, think, read profusely and know the values of the modern world and democracy,” the president said in his message.
The Ministry of Education last month issued a circular to all schools and asked them to devote their first lectures to the subject of discrimination. While explaining the reason of the anti-discrimination lecture, Minister Çubukçu said the move could be considered part of the government's “democratization initiative.”
The government launched an initiative two months ago to solve the country's decades-old Kurdish question. It is expected that the government's yet-to-be-announced plan will include the removal of some obstacles before the Kurdish language in addition to many other new regulations.
Çubukçu gave a lecture on the fight against discrimination at the İsmail Tağman School in İstanbul. The speech was broadcast live by TRT 2.
Çubukçu underlined in her speech the importance of tolerance toward others who are not from the same ethnic group or who do not speak the same language. “Tolerance means to be able to listen to those who do not defend the same idea as you, without getting angry,” she told the students. Çubukçu underlined that everyone is talking about the importance of democracy, respect for human rights and the wrongfulness of discrimination but that not everyone is able to absorb these ideas and act accordingly.
During her lecture she also underlined the issue of “exclusion” and added that there are many ways to do so. “To laugh at, to not to speak with, to ridicule, to not greet those who are not similar to you -- all these mean to discriminate against them,” she said.
Çubukçu stressed gender equality and said that one of the most awful types of discrimination is based on gender.
In İstanbul, Robert College welcomed its new class on discrimination in an unconventional way. Pieces of paper with the words “Kurdish,” “Armenian,” “Jewish” and “Turkish” were placed on the foreheads of students as an open call for respect for all citizens of the country.
‘Very encouraging but a long way to go'
Öztürk Türkdoğan, the chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), told Today's Zaman that it is very hopeful to see the first lecture at schools devoted to discrimination but added that Turkey has a very long way to go.
He said that although Turkey has ratified major international agreements about anti-discrimination and despite Turkish law being based on the principle of equality, there remain many shortcomings in the fight against discrimination.
“Discrimination is a matter of culture. To fight it and to prevent it requires time, but still it is very important to devote the first lecture to the subject to at least improve awareness,” Türkdoğan said.
He added that as long as the Constitution remains as is, it will be very difficult to overcome discrimination. “Schoolbooks contain many discriminatory, nationalistic, militarist and gender-based ideas of discrimination,” he said.
Commenting on the new lecture, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group chairman Oktay Vural said he found it unnecessary as Turkey has no problem of discrimination.
“It is wrong to give the impression that there is a deep-rooted problem of discrimination in our country. We have no such problem. Rather, we have assets arising from our diversity. It would be better if Çubukçu had explained our common values that bind us together and our assets resulting from our diversity instead of focusing on diversity or discrimination. With this move, the government is emphasizing discrimination. We don't think this is a good step. A major mission of our national education system is to endow our children with a culture of coexistence through national upbringing. In this regard, I strongly disapprove of the government's discrimination move. This is because if you bring diversity to the forefront, you lead people to concentrate on separation, paving the way for actual division,” he noted.
Textbooks full of discrimination
Turkey reviewed its schoolbooks two years ago and tried to eliminate content deemed to be discriminatory, but a recent report titled “Human Rights in Schoolbooks,” the result of a collaborative effort between the History Foundation and the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) involving a survey of 139 textbooks, found that the books still contain many militarist, nationalist, racist and gender-biased sections. Only 11 percent of the books were found to be unproblematic.
“We did the same study two times. The first was in 2004, and after changes were made to schoolbooks, we repeated the survey in 2008. Unfortunately we noticed that indirect discrimination weighs heavily, while improvements were not significant,” Gamze Rezzan Sarışen, a History Foundation official, told Today's Zaman.
The report found that the books did not develop critical perspectives and were problematic in terms of creating an “us versus them” mentality and not promoting peaceful values.
The project suggested that the Turkish school curriculum should be reviewed according to international agreements that Turkey has signed and that the “National Security Class,” in which children are instructed by military personnel, should be abolished.
“Devoting the first lecture to the subject of discrimination is very important, very hopeful and exciting. But we have some concerns, too. Both schoolbooks and the mentalities of teachers are very important. Our teachers' anti-discrimination training is inadequate,” Sarışen added.
Zübeyde Kılıç from the Education Personnel Union (Eğitim-Sen) told Today's Zaman that it is very important to devote the first lecture to discrimination -- especially in a country such as Turkey, where discrimination is a significant problem. But she agreed with Sarıışık in that Turkey needs to take radical steps to fight against deep-rooted discrimination in the country.
“Discrimination cannot be solved with only one lecture since discrimination is deeply rooted in all aspects of the education system. Ethnic, gender and religious discrimination is still present in school. Teachers also have to be trained to be able to increase the students' awareness on the matter, but they have not been given this training,” Kılıç said.
National pledge before first lecture on discrimination
Before going to class to hear the first lecture on discrimination, elementary school students read the national pledge, for many civil society organizations a discriminative act.
Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (Mazlum-Der) Diyarbakır branch Deputy Chairman Abdurrahman Ay said he is collecting signatures for the removal of the national pledge from elementary schools. “It is a contradiction to give the first lecture on discrimination and to still make the children say the pledge every morning,” he said.
The pledge in part says: “I am a Turk. I am honest and I am a hard worker. My duty is to protect those younger than me and to respect my elders.” Since 1933, Turkish elementary school students have had to repeat the pledge of allegiance, the “Andımız,” in which they also say, “I offer my existence to the Turkish nation as a gift.”
The removal of the national pledge from the education system is expected as part of the government's democratization initiative.