Government-funded religious İmam Hatip schools have expanded considerably across Turkey since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2002, from 450 to over 1,400 schools. The Ministry of National Education (MEB) justifies this expansion as a natural response to what they claim to be “high demand from parents” but recent reports reveal that these schools draw about 50–60 percent less students than their capacity each year.
The extraordinary, though largely unsolicited, expansion of religious schools, along with the conversion of many public schools into İmam Hatips, has generated growing public criticism, especially among parents and students who are left with no other public schooling option in the vicinity of their homes. The Turkish education system, moreover, is facing major deficits in terms of equal access and quality at all levels of schooling. Since these under capacity schools educate only about 10 to 15 percent of Turkey’s students, and their growth does little to address pressing needs within the Turkish education system more broadly, why then is Turkey’s government investing so many of its scarce educational resources in them?
The Challenge of Turkish Youth
The AKP’s rapid rise to political dominance since 2002 has polarized contemporary Turkey between those supporting Erdoğan’s program to create a “New Turkey” and those opposed to it. The fact that Erdoğan has been able to garner winning coalitions of over 50 percent of the electorate is due partly to the AKP’s redistributive policies that grant previously marginalized citizens access to state resources and contracts, and partly to Erdoğan’s polarizing discourse which frames politics as a hostile clash between economic/state elites and the repressed majority, and between “secularist anti-democratic forces” and “Muslim democratizers.” Over time, this coalition has become the support base for the AKP’s wide-ranging reorganization of the state and the society, which has enabled the AKP to achieve unmatched power, spreading conservative and Islamic references and practices into everyday life across Turkey.
But one of the most significant obstacles to the AKP fully realizing its hegemonic objectives in Turkey is the widespread disaffection of Turkish youth with the AKP. Despite its national electoral popularity, the AKP has been significantly less successful in attracting youth support for its campaigns. The AKP’s youth vote (among those 18–25) is generally 5 to 10 percent below its national support level and compares poorly with other political parties such a pro-Kurdish and leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
Many young people, moreover, are not only less inclined to vote for the AKP in comparison to their parents, they are actively critical of its policies. The nationwide protests in summer 2013 that were sparked by the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, for example, highlighted the growing discontent of Turkish youth with the direction that the country was taking under Erdoğan.
The magnitude of the 2013 protests, especially in the aftermath of youth-led Arab uprisings that toppled long-time rulers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, deepened the AKP government’s insecurities about the threat to its hegemony posed by the country’s youth. Though the government criminalized and violently repressed the protesters, it could not silence dissent. Yet another uprising began in 2015 after the breakdown of the peace process between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This time, Kurdish youth organized under the banner of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) built barricades and trenches, and took up arms to fight the Turkish military in asymmetric urban warfare, leading to 900 deaths, including 350 security personnel, and the destruction of entire city quarters, furthering the disillusionment of Kurdish youth with AKP rule. Government persecution of student dissent has also increased: as of 2018, there are 70,000 students in jail and over 100,000 facing trial.
In addition to political alienation and overt dissent, Turkish youth also represent a major cultural and moral challenge to the AKP’s conservative and religious agenda. In its 2016 report, the pro-government Social, Cultural and Economic Research Center (SEKAM) warned that the country’s youth was engaged in high levels of alcohol and drug consumption and sexual activity while also noting their low level of religious morality and social trust, and a strong desire among many to emigrate. More recently, a wave of media reporting and anonymous confessions about growing atheism and deism among youth from conservative and pro-AKP families suggests increasing alienation from the orthodox Sunni Islam that the AKP propagates.
Raising a Religious Generation
Given that more than half of Turkey’s population is under 30 years old, the challenge Turkish youth present to the AKP’s effort to consolidate and reproduce its power is a problem too large to be ignored. Thus, in 2012, amid student protests and criticism about the AKP’s education policies, Erdoğan declared that the goal of his party was to raise religious youth.
Erdoğan’s declaration marked a significant break from the Republican myth of youth as the guardian of the secular Republic, propagated by its founding statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was also a break from the first two terms of the AKP, during which time the party avoided overt identification with Islamist politics, defining its ideology as “conservative democrat” on par with European Christian democratic parties. Some interpreted Erdoğan’s declaration about raising religious youth as a tactic to divert public attention from the AKP’s contentious policy agenda or government scandal. In hindsight, however, it was actually an expression of AKP policies that were well underway by this time.
Religious education has been the subject of vehement political contention ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The transition from the Ottoman Empire to Republican Turkey was marked by a steadfast secularization policy that limited the role of religion and Islamic organizations in Turkish politics and society, while placing all religious activity under the control of the secular state. The Unification of the Education Law of 1924 banned over 479 Ottoman madrassas, abolished religious curricula in all schools and brought all religious and regular schools under the rule of the MEB, while also establishing İmam Hatips as vocational schools in 1924 for training prayer leaders and preachers to disseminate state-sanctioned religion to support the new Republican regime.
Although İmam Hatip schools were closed down in 1931 due to the lack of students and political commitment, they reopened after Turkey’s transition to multi-party system in 1946 and flourished in the following decades: by 1996, the number of schools and students had doubled to 601 schools with 511,502 students. And while the schools kept their status as vocational schools, they became an appealing alternative for religious and conservative families, where girls could wear headscarves and single-sex education in classrooms was permitted.
The 1997 memorandum “coup” by Turkey’s military, the self-declared guardians of Atatürk’s secularism, forced the pro-Islamist Welfare Party-led coalition government to strengthen secularism, stalling the expansion of religious education in Turkey beyond existing İmam Hatips and mandatory religion classes in all other schools as stipulated in the 1982 constitution written under military tutelage after the 1980 coup d’etat. The government was compelled to introduce a schooling system that required eight years of uninterrupted primary education, leading to the closure of middle sections of high schools, including those of İmam Hatips. The reform aimed to keep students in secular schools longer, making them less vulnerable to religious inculcation. Regulatory measures were also introduced that significantly disadvantaged vocational school students if they pursued higher education in fields outside their vocational training, making it difficult for İmam Hatip graduates to attend four-year colleges other than divinity schools, preventing them from pursuing careers in engineering, medicine or law. Both measures led to a significant decline in the number of İmam Hatip students: from 511,502 in 1997 to just 77,392 in 2002.
Religious Education As Political Mobilization
The AKP has taken direct aim at these restrictions as part of an unprecedented expansion of religious schooling in Turkey since coming to power in 2002. Consecutive AKP governments have rescinded regulations limiting İmam Hatips and have made resources and opportunities available to them and their graduates. The MEB under the AKP has granted Islamic civil society organizations such as ENSAR, İlim Yayma and ÖNDER, a more prominent role in nationwide education governance. These organizations build the majority of İmam Hatip schools and dormitories and then transfer them to the MEB on the condition that they are used solely for religious education. This partnership is an attractive model for the AKP not only ideologically but also economically by increasing the role of private investment in education and philanthropy in welfare provisioning.
İmam Hatip schools provide Erdoğan and the AKP an important platform to spread influence and consolidate power in the new Turkey under construction, and reach the country’s younger generation. For one, İmam Hatip provide human and social capital for the state bureaucracy. Much of the stunning growth in the budget of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, from 600 million YTL in 2002 to 8 billion in 2018, surpassing the growth of the Ministry of Education budget in the same years, is allocated for personnel growth, creating further job opportunities for the schools’ graduates. With a curriculum that includes both regular school math, science and social studies classes as well as religion and Arabic courses, a large majority of graduates enter business, law and politics. Many AKP politicians, including Erdoğan and his key bureaucrats are proud alumni. In the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup attempt, İmam Hatip filled the space previously occupied by schools affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government holds responsible for the attempted coup.
İmam Hatip schools also provide the AKP a platform for political mobilization of the youth population. Teachers, students and parents form a tight-knit community connected to the party and the government institutions through a network of schools and civil society organizations. This network is an important vehicle of the AKP’s clientalistic distribution of government contracts and jobs to schools’ affiliates. The party structure has been a significant path for empowerment and upward mobility, especially for disadvantaged youth. The network also cultivates young people’s hearts and minds by providing a collective identity, which meshes piety with a sense of moral superiority and resentment founded in the experience of marginalization by secular institutions. This sense of resentment and moral superiority ties the community together by estranging it from the rest of the society, while informing the social bases of the political polarization in Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Organizing Youth for the Party
Erdoğan’s project of raising a religious generation through religious schooling across Turkey is the core element of the AKP’s youth strategy but İmam Hatip schools are only one part of a more systematic strategy undertaken by the AKP to confront its youth problem and consolidate its rule more generally.
Since 2012, Erdoğan’s family and friends have funded and organized a number of youth-oriented NGOs, the most prominent of which include TÜGVA (Turkey Youth Foundation) and TÜRGEV (Turkey Service to Youth and Education Foundation). Both organizations run student dormitories and organize educational and cultural programs. They have grown exponentially both in Turkey and abroad since 2012 through large donations from unidentified domestic and international sources. For example, in April 2012, TÜRGEV received 100 million dollars from abroad via Erdoğan’s son, Bilal Erdoğan who was at the time on the board of trustees of the foundation. The opposition members of parliament made a number of futile inquiries asking the government to reveal the source of funding.
TÜRGEV was also caught up in the corruption scandal that exploded in December 2013 involving government ministers, Erdoğan and his family members as well as the Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab. Zarrab was recently charged in US District Court in New York, for laundering money and helping the Iranian government circumvent US economic sanctions with the help of Halk Bank, owned by the Turkish state. According to Erdoğan, however, TÜRGEV is being attacked because the organization aims to raise youth who knows their religion, history and culture, who are productive, who are dedicated to its country.” Between 2013 and 2018, TÜRGEV increased the number of its dormitories from eight in Istanbul, Bursa, Artvin and Konya to 68 in 34 Turkish cities, and a number of them in London, Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC.
Turkey’s growing and often rebellious youth population is both a significant obstacle to AKP hegemony as well as an opportunity for it to fully consolidate its power well into the future. The activities of proliferating youth-centered organizations, together with the massive investment in İmam Hatip schools indicate the scope of the AKP’s systematic effort to shape and control youth through amicable means. While the party’s record in recruiting youth to its cause has been poor thus far, the future will show whether the extraordinary funding and efforts the Party directs to religious schools and pro-government youth organizations will affect that record. Regardless of the outcome, the strength and resilience of Turkey’s authoritarian regime should be traced as much to these efforts in consent-building as to its more well-known reliance upon coercion and clientelism.
 The Education Union of Turkey, “The State of Education at the End of the 2016-2017 Academic Year,” 2017. [A previous version of this article referred to a larger number of schools. The number was corrected in March 2021.]
 Yeni Akit, August 19, 2015 and CNN, June 1, 2018.
 See OECD, Education at a Glance (2018).
 See Cihan Tugal, “Religious Politics, Hegemony, and the Market Economy: Parties in the Making of Turkey’s Liberal-Conservative Bloc and Egypt’s Diffuse Islamization,” in Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
 Sencer Ayata, “Gençler AKP’den neden uzaklaşıyor?” T24ö August 5, 2017 and Kemal Öztürk, “Gençler kime oy verecek?” Yeni Şafak, May 25, 2018.
 Cumhuriyet, April 10, 2018.
 Demet Lüküslü, “Creating a pious generation: youth and education policies of the AKP in Turkey,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16:4 (2016).
 Iren Ozgur, Islamic Schools in Modern Turkey: Faith, Politics, and Education (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2012), footnote 139.
 Iren Ozgur, Islamic Schools, p. 53.
 Cumhuriyet, September 24, 2018.
 Iren Ozgur, Islamic Schools, pp. 161–62
 Hürriyet, January 20, 2017.
 Sevinç Doğan, “Mahalle’deki AKP,” Iletisim, 2017.
 Emrah Çelik, “Şaşıramıyorum,” Birikim, February 27, 2017.
 Cumhuriyet, April 9, 2014
 Yeni Şafak, February 25, 2015.