Religious freedom in ‘Islamist’ Turkey

Religious freedom in ‘Islamist’ Turkey

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body created by the American Congress, has just launched its annual report. The long document examines many countries, from Burma to Venezuela, and lists the violations or improvements with regards to religious freedom. And one of its focuses, as it has always been, is Turkey.

You can read the whole document online, but I will just underline one of its observations that I also have emphasized in these pages: As counterintuitive as it might sound, the new and more “Islamist” Turkey is more hospitable to religious diversity than the old and hardcore secularist one, because, as the USCIRF puts it in a nutshell:

“For the last several years Turkey has implemented a number of reforms to begin to rectify many of the longstanding restrictions on the country’s diverse religious communities. These new policies and initiatives, which relate to returning expropriated minority properties, loosening the ban on headscarves, and issues related to textbook reforms and increased educational opportunities, among others, indicate that Turkey is moving in a positive direction with regard to religious freedom.”

It is notable that the report also contrasts this “positive direction” of Turkey with the older attitude:

“In the name of Turkish secularism, the government has long restricted religious minority communities’ ability to own, maintain, and transfer both communal and individual property, to control internal governance, and to train clergy. However, the AK [Justice and Development] Party recently has begun to reverse many of these restrictive policies, actions which the minorities generally view as positive.”

The report goes into detail and notes how the ancient regime (under Atatürk in the ‘30s, and “Atatürkist” generals in the ‘70s) had oppressed minorities:

“For many years, successive Turkish governments expropriated properties from religious minority and Muslim communities, including schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages, and cemeteries. Most of the confiscations occurred during three distinct periods of time: first, in 1936, with the passage of the Foundations Law; second, in 1971, when the Private University Law required that all private colleges (including theological schools) be affiliated with state-run-universities; and third, in 1974, when non-Muslim communities were forbidden from owning properties other than those registered in 1936.”

“However,” the report adds, “in recent years other religious groups, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, have been permitted to register foundations.”

The report is right to note that there still are problems in Turkey, issues such as rightful demands of the Alevis, the much-delayed re-opening of the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or societal intolerance to diversity. The struggle for freedom should go on, in other words. It just should not be misunderstood.

NOTE: My column neighbor Burak Bekdil, once again, devoted a piece of his to refuting me. He disagreed with my prediction, “Turkey’s progress on the ‘Armenian issue’… will be spearheaded by Islamic minds more than secular minds,” and reminded us what an open-minded secular person he himself is – of which I have no doubt, unless the issue is Islam, Muslims or Palestine. But I was actually contrasting “Islamic minds” to “secular Kemalists,” and Mr. Bekdil, a non-Kemalist, did not need to take it personally. He just could have used a more careful reading, and nuanced understanding, of what I said.