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Turkey's young people politicized by fears of Islamist influence

Ozal Kilic in Gezi Park, Istanbul, where several week long protests took place earlier this year. Kilic camped out there for 20 days. Now the municipality has improved the park, planted many flowers and built a playground for children. Claudia Wiens / Getty Images for NBC News

This is part of a series – Future Shock: Millennials in Crisis – looking at how young people around the world are grappling with the transition to adulthood in a challenging global economy. 

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Young people in Turkey are more politicized following mass anti-government protests that rocked the country this summer. For many Turkish citizens in their late teens and early 20s, a long-standing belief that Islamist students have an upper hand in an important university entrance exam is provoking many to take to the streets.

Ozan Kilic, 19, scored high on the exam and will begin a prestigious state university this fall. Yet, he still took part in the protests, initially sparked by government plans to demolish Gezi Park, a lone green-space in central Istanbul, which grew into a manifestation of discontent with government policies.

In Turkey, state-run colleges are preferred by many Turkish citizens because they are both free and considered more prestigious than private schools because of their established track records.

"If you consider the 10 best public universities, no private university can match their level," Kilic said.

For young people such as Kilic, the controversy surrounding the exam is an example of how secular youth are being marginalized by Turkey's Islamist government in favor of religious youth who will advance its agenda in the future.

The belief is widespread among secularists, who feel threatened by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has roots in political Islam.

In recent years, the AK Party gained control over Turkey's traditionally secular state and the role of religion has grown in the public sphere.

"They want to put their own people into every domain," Kilic said.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the soldier statesman who founded modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, believed religion was holding Turks back and promoted a secularist policy. As a result Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country that is currently less conservative than its neighbors in the Middle East.

But many secularists fear that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also leads the AK Party, is reversing that trend.

“We want to raise a religious youth,” Erdogan said in a controversial speech to the Turkish parliament last year. “Do you expect the conservative democrat AK Party to raise an atheist generation? That might be your business, your mission, but not ours. We will raise a conservative and democratic generation embracing the nation’s values and principles,” Erdogan added.

When it comes to the exam, religious students are accused of receiving an algorithm or “cypher” that allows them to calculate the correct answers while at private preparatory schools, called dersanes.

Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Istanbul's Global Source Partners, said that the controversy has existed for about six years. 

“I would say there is enough circumstantial evidence to conduct a serious and impartial inquiry…” he said. “Until that takes place I think most of the students who [aren’t members of a religious movement] will feel discriminated and disadvantaged against.”

Hazal Deniz Tunc, 17, a high school student in Istanbul who is preparing to take the exam next spring, believes that Islamist students are gaining the upper hand over secular students.

"If you want to conquer a country you first have to plant the people who are close to you in the position of doctors, nurses, teachers," she said, explaining why Islamist students are assisted in attending top colleges.

"This is what is happening in Turkey as well."

Highlighting the importance of the exam in defining one's future in Turkey, Tunc said that some of her friends even contemplated suicide instead of disappointing themselves and their family with a low score. 

"I am so nervous that this summer I could not take a proper vacation. I wake up at 10 or 11 a.m. and start to feel guilty because I am not studying enough," she said. "You realize that the other kids…are going to take the exam with you and at this moment they are studying."

Tunc said she is worried not because she feared religion, but because she believes Erdogan’s policies might marginalize secular people like herself.

In 2011, the Student Selection and Placement Center (OSYM), which oversees the exam, put out a press statement denying allegations that some students were allowed to cheat. 

"Despite that, they are still trying to damage our institution systematically," the statement read.

OSYM and other state institutions involved in the exam refused multiple requests for comment from NBC.

Fatma Zibak, a columnist for Today's Zaman, a Turkish English-language daily with Islamist leanings, also said the cheating allegations were untrue.

"Such allegations are not based on facts. They are mostly voiced by marginal people who want to discredit some dersanes. I, my sister and brother also went to a religious-leaning dersane, but nobody gave us questions beforehand," Zibak said.

She said that while people believe that cheating does take place, it is done on an individual basis.

"Over the past several years, the state has taken strict measures to prevent cheating in the exams yet there are still some students who attempt to cheat, but most of them are caught," Zibak said.

Still, a belief that religious students are favored in Turkey is one of the reasons that both Kilic and Tunc took part in the Gezi Park protests, a political awakening for a generation that was previously apolitical.

"It was against everything,” Kilic said of the protests. "It was against the exam, it was about the right to walk on the streets with your girlfriend and kiss her. It was about everything.

"There is now huge pressure from the government," he added. "They are against people who are not living like they do."

Tunc said the extent of the corruption and favoritism that existed in Turkey at times made her want to study abroad.

"One part of myself says to stay here, struggle, you can change people, you can change your future," she said.

Yet, at other times she thought: "Don't be ridiculous. Look at your country. You should go and save yourself."

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