Non-Muslim minorities in modern Turkey

Non-Muslim minorities in modern Turkey

For the most part, the case of state-recognized non-Muslim minorities in Turkey remains terra incognita today. This analysis aims to relate the process of de-marginalization of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and their return to the foreground of social life in the context of the booming modern Turkish society.

The modernization and secularization of Turkish society did not conform to the promise of a multicultural social establishment in every part of life in the Republic of Turkey. For Turkey’s non-Muslim communities, the new era of the Republic was a period of rapid and severe deterioration of their human rights. It was the same for Muslim Turks themselves, who suffered under nationalist Turks. It was apparent that the Turkish secular nation-state could not tolerate religion as a political and social factor in political life. A period of eight decades meant a long process of decay for non-Muslim communities without having any security of basic human rights: life and property, free expression of mind and religious beliefs, and the like.

Today, economically booming Turkey is challenged to combine its economic prowess with social and political modernization. Over more than a decade, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has shaped this new Turkey in political and economic terms. Throughout this process, the status of non-Muslim communities has improved to an extent not witnessed since the times of the Tanzimat, or period of “restructuring” that took place toward the end of the Ottoman Empire. This improvement is manifested in basic issues related to human rights.

In this context, the concept of democracy is paramount. Democracy is founded on pluralism, tolerance, and diversity. The communities of monotheistic religions living in Turkey today are pockets of pluralism, cultural diversity, social support and therefore of democracy itself.

Today, we are at the first step of restoring the basic civil rights of these communities, involving the right to property (ECHR, Protocol 1), religious expression (ECHR, Articles 9 and 10), liberty and security (Article 5), life (Article 2), and equal participation in the social developments in Turkey against discrimination (Article 14).

Reforms are being implemented in Turkey, but more reforms are needed during the process of drawing up of the new Turkish Constitution. The Constitution of 1982, which is still in effect, is a text that served the junta of the 1980 coup. The ruling AKP brought about many constitutional changes, culminating in those confirmed by the referendum of 2010. Nevertheless, the constitutional text still does not meet the requirements of a modern state that envisions being liberal and in line with EU principles.

Turkey – after decades of adverse experiences – proclaims it wants a Constitution based on universal human values and liberal principles. Capitalizing on every opportunity to influence decision-makers, today as members of minorities, we seek egalitarianism through resolute assertion of equal treatment in all of our levels as active political subjects.

Therefore, the main proposed topics for the new Constitution are divided into the following basic principles (temel değerler): equal citizenship (eşitlik), multiculturalism (çoğulculuk), and freedoms (özgürlükler) and fundamental rights (temel haklar) such as the freedom of religion, freedom of conscience (din ve vicdan özgürlüğü), and the right to education (eğitim hakkı).

The platform for achieving such a goal is the long-awaited adoption of a new Constitution. The new Constitution could ensure in practice – not just in theory – the equality of monotheistic communities. A society that offers expression, creativity, and work for its citizens highlights those very characteristics that guarantee safety and provide for further development. Otherwise, the dynamics of societies have expiration dates; they inevitably decline and decay. In contrast, ensuring multiculturalism, social harmony, creativity, and economic and personal development based on cultural harmony and respect for human rights will guarantee the integrity of Turkey’s society, as well as peace inside and outside the country.

* Laki Vingas is the elected representative of the Non-Muslim Foundations in Turkey and Council Member of the General Directorate of Foundations in Ankara. This article is an abridged version of the original article published in the Spring 2014 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly. For more information, visit: