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Religious groups, expectations of the new Constitution, and the AKP

13.06.2012, Forum 18 / Mine Yıldırım

Turkey’s Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK) started writing the new draft Constitution on 1 May, starting with the section on fundamental rights. It remains unclear whether the new Constitution will ensure a neutral state and an effective protection of the right to freedom of thought, religion or belief for all. While a new Constitution will not of itself end the many religious freedom problems Turkey’s people face, it could solve at least some of the systemic problems and send a strong signal to government and society of other necessary changes.

So far, the AUK has demonstrated an inclusive approach to listening to the expectations of the new Constitution of many diverse groups within Turkey. Representatives of groups from the majority Sunni Muslim community, such as the Diyanet Foundation, and from minorities such as the Alevis (who may comprise one third of the population), various Christian communities, and the Jewish community have all presented their views to the AUK. However, some such as the Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheist and agnostic groups did not become involved in this process.

Although the AUK will make its decisions unanimously, the draft Constitution will be subject to changes by and the approval of the General Assembly of the parliament, the Grand National Assembly. The AUK is chaired by Grand National Assembly Speaker Cemil Cicek, and its members are from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the main opposition party the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Real equality in daily life wanted

The views that religious groups presented to the AUK reflect their longstanding problems and desires. Some Sunni Muslim groups emphasised the need for greater protection of manifestations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in public, such as the use of religious symbols and practice of namaz in employment.

Some of the key religious freedom manifestations that religious groups, including minorities and groups within the majority Sunni Muslim population, hope to see protected in the new Constitution include: the right to establish schools where religious training can be provided, the right for religious organisations and communities to acquire legal entity status, the right to establish places of worship, the right to appoint leaders in accordance with their respective religious traditions.

Also desired is an explicit Constitutional commitment to see the right to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey protected in line with international human rights law, such as Article 9 (“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”) of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) (see F18News 30 November 2011http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1641).

All religious groups who presented their views agree that the new Constitution must genuinely protect real equality between followers of all religions or beliefs, as against a merely formal equality that has no practical impact. They want to experience real equality in daily life.

State – religion relations

The impact of “laiklik”, or “Turkish secularism”, on state – religion relations is a crucial part of the Constitution-drafting discussions. Some groups are silent on whether Turkey should maintain laiklik in the Constitution or not. Others would like to see, in the constitutional text, a clearly set out explanation of what laiklik would mean in the new Constitution. This reflects the fact that there is not one meaning of laiklik; there are several, with for example different meanings used by different political parties (see F18News 30 November 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1641).

Meeting the AUK on 17 December 2011, the Diyanet Foundation asked for laiklik to be maintained in the new Constitution. They also opposed an autonomous Diyanet, instead asked for maintaining its position within the state structure. As far as the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics lessons are concerned the Diyanet Foundation did not believe these were contradicting the principle of laiklik they expressed the view that optional lessons on, for example, performing the namaz, should be made possible in schools. The Diyanet Foundation builds many mosques in Turkey, and has the purpose of supporting the Diyanet in all its activities (see F18News 4 May 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1567).

Non-Muslim religious minorities, the Alevis, and some civil society groups have – in contrast to those who advocate laiklik – emphasised the need to both: make the neutrality of the state and equal distance to all religions and beliefs a constitutional principle; and recognise explicitly the pluralistic nature of Turkish society. These demands for the new Constitution to guarantee state neutrality and pluralism reflect both the reality of Turkish society and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (see F18News 27 June 2011http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1585).

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