An emerging religious minority

An emerging religious minority

A few years ago, a suspect in the infamous Ergenekon investigation stood up at the court to make his defense. It went largely unnoticed, although the way the man defended himself was a de facto seal on the birth of a new religious minority in Turkey.

“I am innocent,” the suspect declared before the presiding judge. “It is impossible that I should be guilty (of conspiring to overthrow the government). I am a devout Muslim; my family members are all pious people; and my sister wears the Islamic headscarf.” 

That defense had an important political message: The Turks were now convinced that being a pious Muslim and having a sister with a headscarf could earn a defendant a privileged court trial. 
Recently, the annual U.S. government report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom cited Turkey “for systematic and egregious limitations on religious liberty.” The report said: “Turkish society and the government are grappling with religious and ethnic diversity, but serious questions remain as to the ruling AK Party‘s will – or ability – to match its ad hoc gestures with action and fully recognize Turkey’s religious and ethnic diversity by codifying religious freedom in law and practice.”

But apparently President Barack Obama does not have the habit of reading his own administration’s often meticulously collected data and assessments, as evinced by the fact that in Seoul he congratulated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the Turkish leader’s treatment of religious minorities. Who is telling the truth? The U.S. government or the U.S. president? 

According to the report, the country whose prime minister the U.S. president congratulated for religious liberties is, along with Tajikistan, among a total of 16 nations listed by the U.S. Commission as “countries of particular concern.” The other 14 countries in the bottom 16-league are Myanmar, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. 

Ironically, the Commission is tasked with compiling the reports for use by the President (yes, the President!), the Secretary of State and lawmakers. As always, realpolitik comes before principles, as even an official U.S. report could produce an opposite repercussion on the president’s rhetoric.

Why then, do the spiritual leaders of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities make rosy speeches one after the other, praising the government’s efforts to boost their communities? It is because they simply hope to protect their communities from an entity capable of harming them. Remember a couple of years ago, when Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I said he felt “crucified” in Istanbul? Remember what response (and from whom) he, a Turkish citizen, got? Weirdly, the man who replied to that remark was Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The Foreign Minister! Meanwhile, the only religious minority that loudly defends its rights is the Alevis, because they are Muslim and they are too big to be easily crushed. 

But there is another community that is emerging as a minority. It is not small but is becoming thinner.

It is the secular Muslims (who are different and much larger than secular atheists). Like the Alevis, the majority, pious Turks, do not consider them to be Muslims. 

Their rights are threatened and if they speak out they are immediately labeled Ergenekon conspirators. The unlucky ones who do not have pious members in their families would be unable to make impressive defense speeches at the courtrooms, like the suspect who has a sister with the headscarf.

Yes, secular Muslims should be officially recognized as a religious minority in Turkey, because effectively they are.