ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Turkey, schoolchildren returned to class this fall to find a number of changes to the curriculum, changes pushed through by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Teachers and parents are concerned about the religious nature of some of the changes to what's long been a secular school system. NPR's Peter Kenyon has the story from Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: According to the Constitution, the Turkish Republic is a secular state. But the most recent changes to what's being taught in Turkish public schools have strengthened fears that religion, in particular Sunni Islam, is encroaching on previously secular areas such as education.
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KENYON: As the school year opened, teachers and worried parents took to the street to voice their objections. Some glanced nervously at columns of helmeted riot police standing nearby. Ozcan Danlisman with one of Turkey's teachers' unions says a few days previously, as they tried to hand out leaflets for what they called a march to save secular education, police looked on as they were attacked by a pro-government mob.
OZCAN DANLISMAN: (Through interpreter) They wrecked our display and attacked us with knives and iron bars. I got away with some bruises, but one of my friends was pretty seriously hurt.
KENYON: Standing near the protest, 46-year-old Semih Gunar says the updates include some needed reforms to the overall curriculum. But he was alarmed by explicit moves to emphasize religious themes. The most obvious example was the almost complete removal of teaching evolution from the national curriculum. But Gunar is also opposed to some of what's being added, such as introducing jihad education and inserting religious songs into the classroom.
SEMIH GUNAR: (Through interpreter) Yes, we heard about this move to put jihad education in the curriculum and the use of religious hymns in music classes. That's why we're here. If we can't stop this now, we're going to find the younger generation growing even more religious. And I hate to think what that could mean for our country.
KENYON: The government says such fears are overblown. Education Minister Ismet Yılmaz was particularly dismissive of complaints about jihad education. He told reporters earlier this year that children need to learn about the other meaning of jihad - not Islamic holy war, but a struggle inside each Muslim to live a good life and serve society.
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ISMET YILMAZ: (Through interpreter) We need to teach children what is and what is not jihad. That's why it's in the curriculum. If anyone misunderstands we will correct them, so there's no problem here.
KENYON: Such reassurances haven't eased the fears of Turkey's secular population. It has watched the ruling AK Party, cheered on by conservative religious voters, undo some of the measures put in place by the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, such as lifting the ban on female government employees wearing Islamic headscarves at work. Batuhan Aydagul is coordinator at Sabanci University's Education Reform Initiative. He says the changes also include a new strain of nationalism stemming from the failed coup in 2015. But he says the religious aspect is certainly worrying.
BATUHAN AYDAGUL: There is a lot of evidence that this government is trying to build a new identity. And, yes, religion is playing an increasing role in how education policies are shaped.
KENYON: Aydagul says secular people in Turkey should be concerned about these changes to the curriculum because in his view, it's a sign that the secularism that has underpinned the Turkish Republic for nearly a century is no longer functioning properly.
AYDAGUL: Because that's exactly what shouldn't happen, religion actually dictating what public education should or should not include.
KENYON: The changes only apply to certain grades this year, but will be rolled out more broadly in the future. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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