In its 2012 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Turkey among 16 “countries of particular concern for the reason that Turkey violated freedom of religion “systematically and egregiously.”
Turkey’s status has thus deteriorated since it was among countries “under review” in the commission’s 2008 annual report, and among those on the “watch list” in 2009. The religious freedom report released last year by the US State Department had, on the other hand, praised Turkey for “the steps it took on the way to improving religious tolerance.”
The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Turkey reacted harshly against the latest report by the commission and declared that “this report that purposefully ignores further steps taken recently and the political will which features as a basis for the reforms that are being made is worth nothing to us.” It subsequently came to light that since one of the five members of the commission who voted to place Turkey among the “countries of particular concern” had backtracked, it had to be removed from that list, but was not.
I don’t have sufficient comparative knowledge to decide on the issue as to whether Turkey deserves to be among the worst placed countries in terms of freedom of religion, but I am fully aware that in Turkey there are many restrictions on religious freedom that there are not at all compatible with a democratic order. Let me list some of the major ones.
In accordance with Kemalism’s authoritarian understanding of secularism that regards religion — and especially Islam — as “reactionary,” the state and religion are not separated in Turkey. Instead, the state monopolizes and controls religion. Regardless of their religious beliefs, all citizens have to finance the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DİB), which represents official (Sunni-Hanafi Islam), through the taxes they pay. The Constitution assigns DİB the function of promoting national unity. Proposing the exclusion of DİB from state administration is a cause for the closure of political parties. DİB all religious activity, and centrally determines even the content of the Friday sermons to be read in the mosques.
While DİB is supported by general taxes, other religious groups don’t receive a penny of state aid. The largest religious minority, the Alevis, have been allowed to open their houses of prayer, or cemevis, only during the last two decades, but they still lack legal status. Certification to open a cemevi is still up to the arbitrary permission of municipalities. Furthermore , the Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Assyrian, Catholic and Protestant churches, the Jews, Bahais, Yazidis, Shiites and other religious groups don’t have legal status, don’t have the right to train their clergy, and are all subject to the arbitrary practices of authorities.
Although the majority of Sunnis believe in Sufi Islam and are members of religious brotherhoods or of communities and movements that have evolved from those, the ban on religious brotherhoods has been in place since 1925, while members of these religious groups are subjected to threats and pressure by the authorities. Wearing the headscarf is prohibited not only in all public buildings, including Parliament, but also in schools of all levels. It is only during the last two years that headscarves have been allowed in universities. In line with the law on the “unification of education” adopted in 1924, religious education, including the education of prayer leaders and preachers, is in the state’s monopoly. In violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, families are not entitled to decide on what sort of religious education their children are to be provided with in the compulsory religion courses in school. The motive for almost all military coups and coup attempts since 1960 has been the fight against “separatism” (which refers to Kurdish identity claims) and/or “religious reactionaryism” (which refers to Islamic identity claims). Political parties that have had nothing to do with violence or racism but represented Islamic values were closed down. In this context, even the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which received nearly half of the national vote, faced the threat of closure.
Maybe worse than legal restrictions on religious freedoms is the situation whereby citizens refrain from disclosing their religious identities for fear of retribution. Most Alevis had to hide their religious identity until the 1990s. Aside from the Alevi minority, there are Sunni Muslims who still feel the necessity to conceal which Sufi order or religious community or movement they belong to. Citizens who have discovered their Armenian origins have only recently begun to dare get baptized.
That is why I find it absurd when I hear hard-line secularists demand full transparency of religious groups, ignoring entirely the fact that religious freedom is not at all secured in this country.