Freedom of religion and conscience in secularism

Freedom of religion and conscience in secularism

In its very significant Alevi judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had this sentence in its 66th paragraph: “[...] The state’s duty of neutrality and impartiality is incompatible with any power on the state’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the ways in which those beliefs are expressed.” 

In other words, the court said that a secular state has to be neutral and impartial before religious beliefs. If a state is trying to assess the validity of a religious belief or attempting to decide how its services should be conducted, then this is conflicts with secularism. 

Look at the situation of Alevis in Turkey. 

Our state is saying the same thing in essence in its defenses it has sent to the ECHR and also in the domestic legal proceedings to the Council of State: 

“Alevism is also Islam and the place of worship in Islam is the mosque. In the cemevis and dervish lodges, certain rituals of the Alevi faith that has mystic roots are conducted. Thus, the cemevi, despite its feature as a place where Alevi culture is accomplished, is not a place of worship.” 

In fact, the court set the rule that as a state you cannot decide on what is belief and what is not; moreover, you cannot determine how the worshiping of that belief should be conducted. 

This is exactly what corresponds to the “freedom-based secularism” that is frequently mentioned these days. 
Wide segments who speak on secularism with a huge appetite are keenly refraining from mentioning the extremely important decision of the ECHR on Alevism, avoiding seeing this side of secularism. 

In fact, one of the key paragraphs of the ECHR decision is paragraph 124 and it says: “[... The] court considers that the attitude of the state authorities towards the Alevi community, its religious practices and its places of worship is incompatible with the state’s duty of neutrality and impartiality and with the right of religious communities to an autonomous existence.” 

I want to remind it once more: It has now been confirmed with an ECHR judgment that we are violating the freedom of religion and conscience of our citizens belonging to the Alevi faith who constitute a substantial segment of our population. 

This shame belongs to all of us. 

Religious services for Alevis 

The ECHR has convicted Turkey for violating two separate articles of the European Human Rights Convention.
The first one is the 9th article on the freedom of religion and conscience. The second one is the 14th article banning discrimination. 

The court first explained how it approached this article in the light of the Alevi case. From paragraph 164: “[A] state which has created such a status must not only comply with its duty of neutrality and impartiality but must also ensure that religious groups have a fair opportunity to apply for this status and that the criteria established are applied in a non-discriminatory manner.”

In other words, it has to treat equally. 

Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is allocated resources from the central budget and it provides religious services; it in fact provides it only for the Sunni majority. Well then, who will provide religious services to the Alevis and how will equality be reached here? 

Because it is not the court’s duty; it does not suggest a method but it explains the principles. 

For instance, if the state pays the salaries of the mosque imams, then the salaries of the clergy (dede) in the cemevi - which will gain worship house status - should be paid by the state. The electricity and water bills of the mosques are paid by state or the municipality, thus the cemevi will benefit from the same practice. If there are imam hatip high schools and theology faculties in universities for the Sunni practice, the same should be present for Alevi practice, etc. 

The framework of the “Alevi initiative,” reported to be finalizing, is written in that ECHR judgment.