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TURKEY: The new Constitution drafting process and freedom of religion or belief

01.12.2011, Forum 18

By Mine Yildirim, Åbo Akademi University <www.inancozgurlugugirisimi.wordpress.com>

The process of drafting Turkey’s new Constitution has produced expectations that this will lead to progress in protecting freedom of religion or belief. Many questions are open, and the possible answers that the drafting process produces need to be monitored closely. The issues that affect the legal framework for protecting religious freedom are many.

It is vital that the new Constitution enshrines full guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for all including agnostics and atheists, fully in line with Turkey’s international human rights obligations. In this regard, reform of both the Constitution and legislation is essential (see F18News 7 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1537). But on its own – without good laws, regulations and state actions – a Constitution can have only a limited impact in generating practical change in the daily lives of people belonging to minority religious and belief communities (see F18News 27 June 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1585).

The Process

The Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (AUK), which is chaired by the Grand National Assembly [parliament] Speaker Cemil Cicek, has been assigned the task of constitution drafting. The members of the AUK are from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition party the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with other members from the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). That AUK decisions will only be made unanimously is very significant, and raises hopes that the new Constitution may enjoy a broad basis of consensus. Topics where no unanimous decision can be reached will be re-evaluated at a time the AUK deems appropriate.

The AUK seems eager to make this process open to submissions from all sectors of society, including political parties, constitutional organisations, professional organisations, trade unions, NGOs, foundations, and religious communities. The AUK’s work will be in three phases. The first phase consists of public participation including receiving submissions, data collecting and assessment. This phase is intended to finish by the end of April 2012 (see http://yenianayasa.tbmm.gov.tr/calismaesaslari.aspx). Following this the Constitution’s principles and a draft text will be produced, followed by a third phase of public debate on this and changes following public discussion. The AUK aims to finish its work by the end of 2012, when it will be considered by the General Assembly of the Turkish parliament, the Grand National Assembly.

…Firstly, the process may help create a mentality change in thinking about Turkish identity. Contemporary nationalist attitudes – a powerful force in state and society – see “threats” from “others” who do not fit the nationalist stereotype of who is Turkish, including non-Sunni Muslim communities (see F18News 29 November 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1053).

Secondly, the process may open up for public debate the provisions of the current Constitution and laws which prevent people in Turkey from fully enjoying the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Mentality Change?

Possibly the greatest contribution of the new Constitution process may be encouraging public acceptance of a pluralist approach to state policies, and relationships between citizens and the state.

The current Constitution glorifies the state, as against enshrining respect for the individual person, and privileges Turkish nationalism. This does not set out a framework which encourages the development of the pluralistic democracy Turkey aspires to become.

Public discussions on a new Constitution, including negotiations between political parties, and the contributions of NGOs and minorities are contributing to the development of an open society – a Turkey that is “more free”, as some put it. This encourages a change of mentality which recognises the many parts of Turkish society. But defence of the current Constitution’s general outlook is also very widely heard in Turkey.

“Laiklik”, or “Turkish secularism”

“Laiklik”, or “Turkish secularism”, has a great impact on the protection of freedom of religion or belief. Its meaning is very different from either the French concept of “laicité”, or what many outside Turkey understand by the term “secularism”. Laiklik is strongly protected in the 1982 Constitution as a principle and is described as “separation of state and religion”. But in practice it means protection of the state from the influence of religion through close state supervision of religious activity, and less autonomy of religious communities than in many other countries (see F18News 7 February 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1537). The greatest problem of laiklik is that there is not one meaning of it; there are several, with for example different meanings used by different political parties.

The drafting process offers the AKP an opportunity to enshrine in the new Constitution its own version of laiklik, as the ruling party will be the major actor in formulating the Constitution. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in speeches he gave during his Arab Spring tour, said that laiklik to him means that the state keeps an equal distance to all religion. At the same time he acknowledged his religious identity by stating that he himself is a Muslim. Yet when one compares these statements with AKP policies on freedom of religion or belief in recent years, there is a lack of clarity as to what the AKP really thinks (see F18News 27 June 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1585).

In defining what the new Constitution means by laiklik, the AKP will have to find a balance between the demands of “conservatives”, “nationalists” and “secularists” – all of whom have differing understandings. The AKP will also have to take account of the normative demands of international law, for example judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg demanding a neutral role for the state. The drafting process will reveal what this will mean for issues at the intersection of freedom of religion and belief and nationalism.

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