Totalitarian systems usually come up with their own ideal man. Soviets had their “new man”; China is trying to build one with their new social credit system. The operators of closed systems try to come up with a blueprint for the ideal man. The ultimate, never-achieved goal of this social engineering is societal harmony and limitless prosperity.

Turkey’s strongman Erdoğan made a number of promises when he was first elected in 2002. One of the promises at the core of his agenda was to lead the revenge of religious imam hatip schools. During the strictly secularist pre-Erdoğan era, symbolized by the so-called Postmodern Coup of February 28, imam (preacher) hatip schools were sidelined. The strict secularist system saw imam hatip schools, which mostly provided religious education, as high schools for those who were interested in pursuing religious careers. The authorities then designed the university entrance system so that it was impossible for imam hatip school students to go to any other faculty beside theology. Erdoğan’s own children are also graduates of imam hatip schools, and were all sent abroad for university education through the help of wealthy businessmen eager to pay for their education expenses.

As Erdoğan became stronger, so did the imam hatip schools. Fast forward to the present day, and the Kartal İmam Hatip school, for example, is known as the school for those who govern the country. The alumni of Kartal are appointed to the most critical state positions. The Kartal İmam Hatip high school is also the school of Bilal Erdoğan, the youngest son of the family. Some of Bilal Erdoğan’s classmates were also lucky: İbrahim Eren, for example, was appointed to the top position of the state channel TRT, and another classmate, Yasin Yılmaz, became the administrator of the national palaces, a critical position in charge of the ancient palaces of Turkey.

Tayyip Erdoğan believes the future of his Turkey lies in İmam Hatip school education. He believes the only way to create his “ideal man” is to educate young Turkish people in line with the strict religious education of the imam hatip schools.

According to the latest report by Sodev, the Social Democracy Foundation, most of the state education budget is allocated to imam hatip schools. In 2018 12,707 liras were spent per student in imam hatip schools while only 6,000 liras were spent per student in regular schools. However, the academic success of the schools is not proportional to the budget. Ertan Aksoy, the head of Sodev, says that only 15 percent of imam hatip students manage to go to a university. Most of those students score very low on PISA tests as well as on the Turkish university exam test.

The allure of imam hatip schools seems to be fading among the general public. A surge in the number of imam hatip schools began in 2002. That year, there were only 450 imam hatip high schools, while that number today is 1623. However, the number of students in on the decline. In 2002, there were 71,100 students, and that number peaked in 2016 at 634,406 students. From 2016 on, the number has declined to 498,002.

According to Sodev’s poll conducted across Turkey with families that have school-age children, only 10 percent said they want to send their children to imam hatip schools. Aksoy underlined that the qualitative part of the research showed that many parents do not think the religious education in the schools is good for their children. 

The poll shows 86 percent of people find the education in Turkey inadequate and far lower in quality than the international standard.

Strong leaders usually project a perfect profile of a member of their society. This imaginary social construct, however, rarely materializes. As the Turkish saying goes, the calculation made at home does not work at the bazaar.