Inclusive Education for Religious Minorities: The Syriacs in Turkey

This article was originally published in Religious Minorities and Struggle for Recognition Vol 8, No 3 (2020) under a Creative Commons license. This article is part of the issue “Religious Minorities and Struggle for Recognition” edited by Christophe Monnot (University of Lausanne, Switzerland / University of Strasbourg, France) and Solange Lefebvre (University of Montreal, Canada).

By Halis Sakız, Abdurrahman Ekinci, and Güldest Baş

Abstract: Expanding the scope of inclusion beyond specific groups such as individuals with disabilities has led to the investigation of school systems’ inclusiveness from the perspective of all students. With this in mind, this research investigated the experiences of students and parents belonging to the ancient Syriac community in Turkey, who inhabited Mesopotamia since the inception of Christianity. Obtaining the views of 43 parents and their 46 children through semi-structured interviews, the school system was investigated at a political, cultural, and practical level in terms of the educational inclusion of Syriac individuals. Overall, student and parent views indicated that: (a) policy-making lacked an approach to reach all students and organize support for diversity; (b) school cultures needed to build a community whereby inclusive values were established; and (c) school practices lacked the organization to target and ensure the learning of all and mobilize resources to achieve this aim. Details of findings are included and discussed. Implications address the importance of building schools that consider the increasingly diverse school populations around the world, with a particular focus on cultural and religious diversity.

1. Introduction

Education is a fundamental human right (United Nations General Assembly, 1949, Article 26). Inclusive education is defined as the process of responding to different needs of learners, increasing their participation in education, culture, and society, and reducing discrimination within the education system (UNESCO, 2009). The expansion of the scope of inclusion has provided the opportunity to talk about the inclusion of various marginalized groups in society, including minorities. Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (United Nations General Assembly, 1949) declares that:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

The minorities are therefore given an extra right in addition to other rights stated by various conventions. Turkey is a member state of the United Nations. Thus, the State needs to comply with the standards and make sure not to deny rights to members belonging to minorities. Therefore, everyone should be provided with the right to reach and benefit from quality education through inclusive approaches. However, the question of what mechanisms should be possessed by school systems for the inclusion of individuals of minority groups needs to be solved.

Recent conceptualizations of inclusion look for inclusion from the perspective of all, especially those who are likely to get marginalized within the system. To ensure that students are included within the schools, theoretical frameworks propose to investigate the policy, culture, and practices of schools, and therefore analyze school systems in a holistic perspective (e.g., Booth & Ainscow, 2002; Dyson, Howes, & Roberts, 2002; Salend, 2011). The key concepts of inclusion are: (i) removing barriers to learning and participation; (ii) allocating resources to support learning and participation; and (iii) providing support for diversity. Also, this perspective provides ground for the voice of marginalized individuals and groups to get heard. In this study, students and parents of the ancient Syriac community are given a chance to comment on their educational experiences from the perspective of inclusion.

2. The Syriac Community in Turkey

Having been characterized as an intersection between Eastern and Western cultures, Turkey is a heterogeneous country with a total population of 83,154,997 (Turkish Statistical Institute, 2020). The largest ethnic group in Turkey are the Turks, which makes sense as Turkey was built as a nation-state. Still, the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians are all protected under the Turkish Constitution, despite having very small numbers. According to Içduygu, Toktas, and Soner (2008), the population of the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in Turkey in 2005 was 27,000, 3,000, and 50,000, respectively. Since the inception of nationalism waves, which roughly correspond to the last 130 years, the ethnic group of Syriacs has been reduced significantly in the areas previously dominated by them (Bardakci, FreybergInan, Giesel, & Leisse, 2017). Currently, they constitute a population between 15,000 and 25,000 according to the origin of modern sources. From this number, there
are about 10,000–15,000 in Istanbul and 2,000–3,000 in the Mardin area in Southeast Turkey (Thomsen, 2008). In both cities, the Syriacs live with a predominantly Muslim population. The majority of the Syriacs have left Turkey and currently live in the diaspora. The Syriacs are an officially unacknowledged non-Muslim minority group that is deprived of minority status (Bardakci et al., 2017). Indeed, there are several officially unacknowledged minority groups such as Circassians, Georgians, and Lazs who possess an approximate population of 2,500,000, 1,000,000, and 2,250,000, respectively.

Syriacs’ historical origins are considered as ancient. Their heritage dates back to early Mesopotamian civilizations. The Syriacs comprise a religious and, at the same time, an ethnic minority. The term Syriac refers to a very heterogeneous ethnic group, whose members belong to the Eastern Christian churches of the Syriac tradition, whose services tend to feature liturgical language use of ancient Syriac, namely Middle Aramaic (Bardakci et al., 2017). For hundreds of years, Syriacs have lived as a minority group with a different cultural and religious identity under different powers in the Middle East. In terms of language, culture, and church, the Syriac community is heterogeneous. Having spread around the Middle East, the Syriacs speak different dialects of the Syriac language as well as Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, and Persian. The minority position and cultural unity have resulted in increased solidarity within the community (Thomsen, 2008).

Although the Syriac identity is a salient one in Turkey, Syriacs—unlike other non-Muslim minorities such as Greeks, Jews, and Armenians—do not have law-abided schools. To receive a formal education, Syriac students attend public and private mainstream schools that are run by the Ministry of National Education under a centralized curriculum. Within this curriculum, Syriac children attend regular classrooms and receive the same pedagogical content. However, the extent to which Syriac individuals are satisfied with the attempts of the educational system to meet their individual, educational, and cultural needs is questionable. One of the main reasons for this is the compulsory Religious Culture and Moral Education course which targets Muslim students and is based on the religion of Islam and the Turkish culture (Yıldız, 2009). According to the current Turkish Constitution, adopted in 1982, Article 2 describes the Turkish State as a “democratic, secular and social state” while, at the same time, Article 24 gives the state control over education and instruction in religious ethics and mandates instruction in religious culture and moral education (Yıldız, 2007). Nonmuslim communities in Turkey claim that if the state controls educational activities, its democratic and social structure requires equitable provision based on the needs of everyone living in the state (Yıldız, 2002).

During the Religious Culture and Moral Education course, students from officially unrecognized minority groups such as the Syriacs have the right to withdraw from the course and obtain exemption (Yıldız, 2009). However, they are not given an alternative course based on their religion and culture. Instead, to receive education in line with their belief system and language, Syriac children attend afternoon lessons in community-owned informal Syriac schools after their state education is completed in the mornings. This informal instruction is still valid and mostly takes place in community-owned churches.

3. Turkey’s Case of Inclusion

In Turkey, all educational activities at the primary, lower secondary, and secondary levels are supervised by the Ministry of National Education. The Ministry supervises all institutions through central national policy. In terms of the way they are funded, there are two types of schools in Turkey―public and private―and both are supervised by the Ministry. Both types of schools have
to comply with governmental policy and provide education based on a central curriculum designed by Social Inclusion, 2020, Volume 8, Issue 3, Pages 296–306 297 the Board of Education, a branch of the Ministry of National Education. From 2004 onwards, a new curriculum was implemented for primary and secondary schools in Turkey. The idea behind the current curriculum is to
make it learner-centered and constructivist. The basic objectives of the curriculum in Turkey are to arrange the units thematically, to develop core competencies across the curriculum, to implement a student-centered constructivist model, to incorporate information communications technologies into instruction, to monitor student progress through formative assessment, to move away from the traditional assessment of recall, to introduce authentic assessment, and to enhance citizenship education (Board of Education, 2005).

Private schools can be established as mainstream schools as well as minority schools if they possess minority status. Unless they have separate law-abided schools concerning the minority status, all schools admit all students regardless of minority status. Law No. 5580 in Turkey defines and organizes the activities of private education institutions including those established specifically for minorities (Ministry of National Education, 2007). The law states that the minorities that are permitted by law to establish schools are the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, meaning that the Syriacs are not allowed by law to establish private schools for their community.

In Turkey, the idea that the education system needs to be organized around multicultural and inclusive principles has been adopted by educators, scholars (e.g., Sakız, 2016; Sakız et al., 2015), and policymakers (e.g., Aktekin, 2017). The recent migration wave following the internal conflict in Syria as well as discussions concerning the flexibility of the educational system has required that the
system possesses multicultural sensitivity towards the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. According to Sakız et al. (2015), the new educational ideology in Turkey, which focuses on multiculturalism and its principles such as inclusion, pluralism, and equity, is providing impetus and new opportunities to both policymakers and practitioners to establish an inclusive education system. This ideology has been adopted by policy as well; for example, in 2004 and 2008, the Regulation for Inclusive Education Practices (No. 2004/7) and the Regulation for Educational Practices through Inclusive Education (No. 2008/60) were published, respectively (Ministry of National Education, 2004, 2008). Also, the migration wave to Turkey has led policymakers (e.g., Aktekin, 2017) to consider strategies of meeting the needs of migrant students. However, in Turkey, inclusion policy has only been associated with specific groups, such as students with disabilities (Ministry of National Education, 2004, 2008) and Syrian migrants (Aktekin, 2017), without any focus on students from ethnic minorities.

Despite increased awareness among scholars and policymakers, enhancing the inclusiveness of the system to provide effective education for students with disabilities and migrants, including those from minority groups, is yet far from being adopted in Turkey. Moreover, apart from Law No. 5580, which concerns the establishment of private schools of Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities, the general policy does not refer to students from minority groups and the strategies to include them within the curriculum. Therefore, a multicultural perspective needs to be established within the Turkish education system and therefore major attempts are needed to include members of minority groups through school curricula. The recent efforts to design inclusive policy are observable. Nevertheless, students from minority groups may lack a sense of belonging to the school community and find it difficult to reach their potential.

In Turkey, studies on diversity and inclusion in education are mostly descriptive (e.g., Batu, 2010), focusing mostly on disability (e.g., Rakap & Kaczmarek, 2010) and recently migration (e.g., Baban, Ilcan, & Rygiel, 2017). However, no study focuses on minority groups and their experiences in schools. Although Syriacs have lived in the region for hundreds of years, little attention has been paid to their educational inclusion within the system. The current study focuses on members of this minority group and investigates their educational experiences from a multicultural perspective.

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