There is an annual Kodak-moment in Turkey's festivities every National Sovereignty and Children's Day, April 23, in which Turkish leaders pick out smart schoolchildren, bring them to the president's and prime minister's offices, invite them to sit in their seats with the president and prime minister there -- and hope the children to make a few witty remarks in front of the cameras. The statesmen then give the children affectionate pats on the shoulder and smile at the cameras.
This year, Fatih Mintaş, a sixth-grade student, took President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's seat and had a chat with him. The president first reminded Fatih that he should be proud of his name (Fatih in Turkish means "conqueror"). Erdoğan then reminded Fatih that he, the president, has six grandchildren and wished that Fatih, too, would have plenty of grandchildren when he grows up.
This wish was not surprising coming from a politician who has repeatedly called on Turkish parents to have at least three children, and more if possible. In a speech in 2017, Erdoğan -- reflecting his Islamist worldview that often comes with a seeming desire to Islamize Christian Europe -- called on Turkish families living in Europe to have five children.
Another feature of Erdoğan's "family engineering" has been his desire to increase enrollment at Turkey's Islamic "Imam Hatip" religious schools, one of which formed the young Erdoğan. In an 2017 speech, Erdoğan thanked God that the number of students at these schools had risen sharply to 1.3 million from a mere 60,000 when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2002. Turkish taxpayers had to spend 45 million Turkish liras (approximately $11 million) to build just one new Imam Hatip school that bears Erdoğan's name.
Since Erdoğan came to power, he has often described his mission as "raising devout [Muslim] generations". With young students -- most of whom are Erdoğan- or party-loyalists -- numbering the size of a Chinese army already enrolled at Imam Hatip schools, and with the schools featuring various shades of Islamist education, from simply conservative to near-radical, the Turkish president seems to have embarked on a relatively comfortable task. All the same, he ignores the simple fact that raising devout Muslim generations is a completely different task than raising decent, wealthy, well-educated generations.
According to Eğitim-Sen, a secular labor union specializing in education, 62% of girl at secondary school age have enrolled in home-schooling programs, keeping them away from conventional schools and, according to their pious parents, from the "dangers of outside world." This "protection" evidently exists to lock girls up at home to keep them religiously conservative.
According to Turkish Education Ministry figures, 97.4% of those students who drop out of school due to marrying at an early age are girls.
According to the Turkish Statistics Institute, 482,908 underage girl students have been married by the state in the past 10 years. In six years, 142,298 underage girls became mothers.
Eğitim-Sen's figures also point to the dangerously increasing levels of child abuse:
"In the past five years there has been a 50% increase in child abuse cases that went to court. One in every six schoolboys are being abused. Seventy percent of those who are younger than 11 are being abused. In Turkey, 46% of overall sexual crimes are committed against children. That makes Turkey the world's third biggest child abuser."
Labor statistics do not tell a brighter story. Eight out of every 10 working children are unregistered and deprived of social security. The number of underage workers (between the ages of 15 to 17) rose from 601,000 in 2012 to 709,000 in 2016.
In addition, there are 450,000 Syrian children who do not attend any school in Turkey (they are the children of 3.5 million or so Syrian refugees residing in Turkey).
This is at the heart of the Islamist "family engineering": to the Turkish regime, as long as there are more children around than families can feed and educate, and as long as they have a religious education, and can cite Arabic prayers that they do not understand, everything is fine. If education standards fall constantly, and children to go factories to work instead of schools, or are married off by their parents and drop out of school, and even if there is escalating child abuse, all is well...
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from Turkey's leading newspaper after 29 years, for writing what was taking place in Turkey for Gatestone. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.