The Turkish Government’s Nationalist Screening Requirements for Teachers Deprives Refugees of a Non-Discriminatory Education

By Steve Ragatzki


 On July 15, 2016, the Turkish government stamped out a coup attempt allegedly orchestrated by cleric Fethullah Gulen.[1] Gulen, who has resided in the United States since 1999, is a champion of interfaith dialogue.[2] Current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promotes views that are “similar but not identical with the Muslim Brotherhood theory of government which does not recognize freedom of press, individual rights against the state, the separation of powers or a clear division between state and religion.”[3] Erdogan’s view contrasts sharply with the original vision of Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president,[4] and Ataturk’s contemporary disciples who wish to maintain “a secular democratic state with checks and balances, rule of law, and protected rights for individuals against the State.”[5] Atatürk’s views, while progressive in a current light, suppressed Islam from a public role even though the faith is at the core of Turkish cultural and social life.[6] The coup attempt was another chapter in the “existential battle going on for Turkey’s heart and for Turkish democracy.”[7]

The Turkish government arrested 32,000 people in connection with the coup attempt.[8] Approximately 21,000 teachers were fired following the July coup attempt.[9] More recently, the Turkish government suspended another 11,000 teachers as suspected sympathizers with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).[10] There are 850,000 teachers in Turkey, so the more recent PKK suspensions mean that less than 2% of the teachers were terminated.[11] As Turkey tried to fill the vacant teaching positions, applicants were asked questions about their preferred columnists and newspapers, their thoughts on the July 15 coup attempt, and their feelings about President Erdogan’s most recent speech.[12]

International Implications

If these nationalistic, propagandist tendencies sound familiar, they have happened before. Nazi Germany serves as a historical parallel to the recent Turkish purge. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, after 1933 the Nazi regime purged German public schools of teachers that were Jewish or “politically unreliable.”[13] Most teachers got on board with the propaganda machine, as all but 3% of educators joined the National Socialist Teachers League.[14] Censorship of certain textbooks followed, and the German educators followed a curriculum that promoted “love for Hitler, obedience to state authority, militarism, racism, and antisemitism.”[15] Propaganda and indoctrination was so pervasive in Nazi Germany that, after World War II ended, the Allies “required young Germans to undergo a ‘de-Nazification’ process and training in democracy designed to counter the effects of twelve years of Nazi propaganda.”[16] While I am not suggesting that Turkey is on the verge of becoming Nazi Germany, the Nazi model of indoctrinating youth provides a scary glimpse into what happens when there is no diversity in education.


 The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was created in 1945 with the understanding, following two world wars, that world peace “must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.”[17] Two of UNESCO’s main goals are that “every child, boy or girl, has access to quality education as a fundamental human right and as a prerequisite for human development” and that freedom of expression is “an essential condition for democracy, development and human dignity.”[18]

One of UNESCO’s largest achievements is the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education (Convention). The Convention defined discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth, has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education.”[19] Importantly, the Convention also mandates that “[e]ducation shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; it shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”[20]

Turkey joined the UNESCO on November 4, 1946.[21] Admittedly, Turkey is not a signatory to the Convention,[22] but as a UNESCO member it should still abide by the goals and ideals of the organization. However, Turkey’s current education policies show that it is not concerned with educational freedom. With the influx of Syrian refugees, Turkey has on its hands a vulnerable population with few rights and even fewer means to enforce those rights. 

Under President Erdogan’s regime, the Turkish education system has introduced compulsory religious instruction and weakened the secular system created under President Atatürk.[23] As of the end of 2015, Turkey was hosting 2.5 million refugees, of which most are Syrian.[24] And even though only about 40% of those refugees are actually being educated in Turkish schools—the rest are being deprived of an education altogether—current Turkish policies are promoting a specific worldview that flies in the face of the UNESCO goal of a diverse, non-segregated education.[25] Although the United Nations has already urged Turkey to correct its human rights violations,[26] more work is needed. Turkey’s current policy of screening teachers for the political affiliation only serves to promote a singular viewpoint in the education of Turkish students. Without a diversity of viewpoints in Turkish classrooms, there will be no diversity of education of Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees. Those vulnerable refugees will especially be denied their right to a non-segregated education under the current regime.

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[1] Gul Tuysuz & Eliott C. McLaughlin, Failed Coup in Turkey: What You Need to Know, CNN (July 18, 2016),

[2] Id.

[3] Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, What Caused the Turkish Coup Attempt, Politico (July 16, 2016),

[4] Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), BBC,

[5] Pearson, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Turkey Arrests 32,000 in Coup Plot Investigation Since July, WorldPost (Sept. 28, 2016),

[9] Zia Weise & Josie Ensor, Turkey fires 21,000 Teachers and Demands Suspension of Every University Dean in Post-coup Crackdown, Telegraph (July 19, 2016),

[10] Turkey-PKK conflict: Thousands of Teachers Suspended, BBC (Sept. 8, 2016),

[11] Id.

[12] Teachers Asked Political Question in Job Interviews Following Purge, Turkish Minute (Oct. 1, 2016),

[13] Indoctrinating Youth, U.S. Holocaust Mem’l Museum, (last updated July 2, 2016).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Introducing UNESCO, UNESCO,

[18] Id.

[19] Convention Against Discrimination in Education, 429 U.N.T.S. 93, art. 1, opened for signature December 15, 1960 (entered into force May 22, 1962) [hereinafter Convention].

[20] Convention, art. 5(1)(a).

[21] Member States List, UNESCO,

[22] Convention against Discrimination in Education. Paris, 14 December 1960, UNESCO, (noting the signatories to the Convention against Discrimination in Education).

[23] Pearson, supra note 3.

[24] Why Don’t Syrian Refugees Stay in Turkey?, BBC (July 15, 2016),

[25] Id.

[26] See Erin Cunningham, U.N. Slams Turkey for ‘Alarming’ Reports of Human Rights Abuses, Washington Post (May 10, 2016),