Another alum’s (very surprising!) insider view of the Turkmen-Turkish school system
Editor’s note: As Turkmenistan’s authorities quietly move to shut down the system of Turkish secondary schools, neweurasia’s Annasoltan communicates with alumni to get insiders’ view. This time she talks with an ex-Muslim turned deist, and what he has to say about the pedagogical content of his school and his own spiritual journey may surprise you.
I’ve previously reported on the rather secretive, gradual mass closure by the Turkmen authorities of my nation’s network of Turkemn-Turkish schools. Only five are allowed to remain open, but their status is being changed. As a follow-up to that report, I interviewed an alum of these schools, who defended them as only lightly religious and generally congenial in tone.
I’ve now found another one willing to go on the record about his education, and his experiences were completely different, up to and including a very active but hidden proselytization campaign on the part of his teachers. The differences in experience are jarring and suggest that the situation within these schools has been far more complex than I originally thought.
I should note that many alum of the Turkmen-Turkish schools in Turkmenistan that I know have one thing in common: they refer frequently to Allah when they talk, like other devout Muslims. Moreover, it’s my impression that their style of Muslimhood tends to be closer to that of the Turks. However, there are other alum who develop differently. The young man I interview here, Shanazar, was brought up in a religious Muslim family, but as a result of his education he chose to become a deist. In his view, the fundamental difference between those alumni who become more religious and those who don’t or become less lies in our nation’s evolving socioeconomic situation, the intellectual qualities of the pupils themselves, and, it seems very critically, the gradual penetration of the Internet.
The interview begins with his spiritual and intellectual journey, then moves to the content of his school’s curriculum. We wrap it up on a personal note.
neweurasia: How and why did you change your religion?
Shanazar: People refer to me as an atheist, but in fact I am not a full atheist, rather I am a deist. I do not believe in religions but I believe that there is a God who created the world. My mother taught me the al-Ihlas (Kulhuv Allah) sura of the Qur’an. When I was eight, I prayed after eating and before going to bed. I learned about the “true Islam” in the Turkmen-Turkish school, where I had access to religious books. Then I started to think: why do some people not believe in Islam? Why didn’t Einstein and millions of other people pray like a Muslim? I wanted to know. The internet came to my help.
One of the things that I didn’t like about Islam was the character of the Prophet Muhammad, [specifically] that he had 12 wives and that at the age of 54 he had sex with nine-year-old Aisha [ed: the historical details regarding the specific number and order of the Prophets' wives depends on the particular Islamic tradition, and Annasoltan would like to point out that it is not correct to describe his relationship to Aisha in simply sexual terms, as she was his wife]. I can’t understand why God made such a man a prophet. He didn’t ban slavery [and] Islam was spread by wars. It teaches strict adherence to its laws, putting horse blinders onto human beings [but] we are living not to live as slaves but as free humans. Islam assumes people are slaves — God’s slave, the mullah’s slave, some man’s slave. I want to decide my life according to my own thinking and not according to a book that was written 14 centuries ago.
neweurasia: There are no Islamic lessons in these schools, so how did you learn about “true Islam” there?
Shanazar: In the beginning, there were religious lessons; then they were cancelled. Yes, true, now there are no lessons, but everybody knows that the foundation of these schools is a religious society. The teachers pray and their goals after school hours is to spread Islam among the population, something they call “tebliğ” [ed: meaning "to announce, report, make news" and "mutual contact with"]. Because the Turkmen government does not allow this to be done openly, they’re doing it secretly. First, they start teaching you Dostoyevski, and if you listen to them they start thinking that you’re receptive to their ideas.
I mean, in the years after independence, Turkmen kids in the villages were poorly dressed. In the Turkmen-Turkish schools, they were could wear suits, as well as watch videos and operate computers. The teachers were seen as powerful. They were handing out religious books to the pupils and they tried to make themselves well-liked by offering stuff to eat to the poorest pupils, who were hungry, or they organized social activities like picnics. The latest wave of teachers especially have shown films with a religious content. Consequently, you start to distance yourself from your other-minded friends and start telling religious stories to your parents.
One of my teachers told me during a lesson that whoever lied would be hung up on an iron running through his tongue in hell, or whoever listened to bad things would be thrown between the trees with thorns. After hearing such horrible things, we wanted to fast during the month of Ramadan. They were also teaching ethics as well as the codes of halal and haram. If someone wasn’t obeying them or for exampling having a girlfriend, he would not be invited to the regular evening tea meeting, where sweets and fruits were offered to the pupils. In short there weren’t religious lessons but there was a secret agenda to teach religion.
neweurasia But the Turkmen-Turkish schools have earned a reputation for teaching a good level of English, as well as science and math, all of which are not available in Turkmen schools.
Shanazar: English and math were indeed taught well, but physics, chemistry and biology was something to understand only for the participants of the Turkmen Olympic Race [ed: this is an educational sporting event, the participants of which are students this may be either a sporting event played at Shanazar's school or a reference to the 2008 motor relay race that crossed Turkmenistan]. One reason was because these lessons were not taught in the native language, and second because there was a shortage of teachers. Therefore, in many of the science lessons, which were empty, documentaries with religious content were shown, such as a video about how God had wonderfully created the camel.
neweurasia: So, are you saying that the Turkmen-Turkish schools gradually drifted away from their initial goals and programs?
Shanazar: From the beginning they were aimed at teaching religion. As some earlier graduates have said, the religiosity at these schools was even stronger earlier, then gradually reduced.
The interesting thing is that as economic conditions have began to improve since the early years of independence, which were difficult for many in our nation, the less influence the schools had upon Turkmen youngsters. However, as new graduates accumulated each year, they were growing stronger [ed: presumably, he means the schools' influence, i.e., through the position and prestige of its alumni network]. If their official aim was to teach ethics, behind this they were secretly servicing religion.
In recent years they aren’t seen as having extra powers anymore, since computers and internet are no longer “wow” things. So, they are sending pupils on tours to Turkey and Great Britain. However, those pupils can afford these trips because they are the children of rich parents, so they cannot be influenced so easily.
neweurasia: But many graduates of these schools praise the good ethics being taught there, along with other values being conveyed. What’s your response to that?
Shanazar: If good ethics means not to drink alcohol, then that’s right. But there is also something called humanity. What’s right with people who refuse to come to the birthday celebration of a friend because there is an alcohol bottle on the table? The schools are separating people according to girls who wear long dresses and those who don’t, men who wear a tie and those who don’t.
There are indeed many graduates who drink alcohol or who do not pray or who do not believe in religion like me. Maybe these are people who do not repent their past. I am happy to be a graduate of the Turkmen-Turkish schools, and if they had not put religion into my mind then I would never have known what’s right and wrong. Not all people who do not believe in religion are bad.
neweurasia: How did you change after becoming a deist? How do you understand ethics?
Shanazar: Nothing has changed, because I have learned ethics from my mother and father. Islam tries to establish ethics by way of fear of the hell, but immorality like crimes and theft are still committed among Muslims, which means such a tactic is useless. Paradise is being promised for the good deeds; if you give alms you will earn God’s blessing; the more you donate, the more likely paradise gets. But is religion necessary to become a good person? To become a good person one needs the mind, conscience, pity and love.
neweurasia: Recently, there’s a lot of debate among Turkmen youngsters about the role of religion in their lives. People seem to be regrouping according to their religious thinking and preferences. Do you think that this can lead to new divisions in our society, after tribal affiliation and locality?
Shanazar: I tend to think optimistically. As the young mature they are confronted with issues of securing a living and other everyday problems, but you cannot express these sentiments openly in Turkmenistan. I am aware that there are now radical Wahabist groups in Turkmenistan who are financed by Arabs; because the Turkmens are a people with customs and traditions, religion seems to be attractive to them. But I hope that these things are not going to lead to a conflict.
Author’s note: The role of the Internet in Shanazar’s conversion to deism, as well as the way it contributed to the diminishing of the standing of the Turkmen-Turkish schools, actually doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Check out my 2009 report for neweurasia, “A friend-request from Allah,” to see the opposite phenomenon — how Islam is going online to spread its message to Turkmenistan’s rising generation.