Debate on secularism ignited in Northern Cyprus over textbook changes

Debate on secularism ignited in Northern Cyprus over textbook changes
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Intertwining education, politics, and cultural identities has sparked intense discussions and calls for action.

By Nikolaos Stelgias

Recent modifications to primary school textbooks in the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have stirred a spirited debate on secularism, with critics claiming this is a move to impose conservative Turkish values on the Turkish Cypriot community.

The intertwining of education, politics, and cultural identities in the TRNC has sparked intense discussions and calls for action. As debates continue, the nation awaits the government's response, all while emphasizing the importance of upholding its unique sociocultural values.

The controversy emerged when significant changes were made to textbooks, catching the eye of academics, concerned citizens, opposition parties, and non-governmental organizations. Many argue that these adjustments seem to veer towards a more conservative tone, with clear influences from Turkey.

Notable Turkish Cypriot academics, including Prof. Dr. Ahmet Guneyli and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Suheyla Ucisik Erbilen, who contributed as an academic advisor and textbook author, expressed their dismay upon discovering that their work had been altered without their prior knowledge or consent.

In a strategic move, the opposition has proposed that instead of resorting to protests, schools should either decline the delivery of these revised textbooks or not incorporate them into their curriculum.

Defending the changes at a recent parliamentary session, the Minister of National Education, Nazım Cavusoglu, stated that these updates stem from a protocol signed with Ankara in 2004. He emphasized the government's commitment to upholding the freedom of belief. Further, Cavusoglu pointed to the inclusion of diverse cultures in the revised content and highlighted the role of Turkish Cypriot academics in the evaluation process.

However, these defenses were met with skepticism, particularly from Burak Mavis, the General Secretary of the Cyprus Turkish Teachers' Union (KTÖS). Mavis labeled the revisions as a "direct cultural intervention," pointing out that the revamped textbooks appear to give undue emphasis to a single religion, overlooking the rich multicultural tapestry of their schools.

The KTÖS further emphasized teachers' crucial role in preserving secular and democratic values in society. They stressed the need for education to remain inclusive, devoid of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, language, or any other sociocultural identifier.

More reactions

As the debate rages on, the union has vowed to hold bureaucrats and the Minister accountable, underscoring the need to uphold education principles and resist undue influences. This ongoing issue highlights the deeper cultural and political nuances in the TRNC and will undoubtedly remain a hot topic in the coming weeks.

CTP (Republican Turkish Party) MP Sila Usar İncirli passionately addressed the parliament, emphasizing the importance of terminology, stating that individuals should be referred to as "special needs" rather than "disabled". İncirli highlighted the urgency for comprehensive laws to empower individuals with special needs and stressed the need to tackle the educational crisis head-on. As a reflection of this crisis, schools' reopening has been postponed to September 18.

She further cautioned about the risks the national crisis poses to the country. Addressing post-earthquake procedures, İncirli lamented the delayed response, urging the ministry to expedite necessary actions. İncirli also raised concerns over the issues faced by students who cannot speak Turkish and expressed dismay over controversial content in primary school books. She described the inclusion of conservative content and visuals undermining gender equality as "unacceptable" and urged the ministry to withhold these books from distribution.

Mine Atli, the President of the TDP (Social Democracy Party), delivered a powerful message emphasizing the severity of the situation. She criticized the inclusion of religious symbols in Turkish textbooks and underscored the dire consequences of departing from secularism. Atli called for a unified resistance against this "AKP imposition," citing fears of a cultural shift steered by the current Education Minister and other governing bodies.

"We have no other choice," Atli declared, urging a collective fight against the reactionary forces and the erosion of secular education.

Yeni Duzen newspaper columnist Cenk Mutluyakali added his voice to the discourse, accusing Ankara of changing textbooks and challenging the Minister of Education's integrity. He resented the imposed cultural and religious narrative and highlighted the differences in international education rankings between Turkey and Cyprus.

Mutluyakali passionately implored, "Why should our children read books written in Ankara? This society has the intelligence to write books!"

*Photo provided by Ozgur Gazete Kibris.