Turkey’s flawed secularism

Turkey’s flawed secularism

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged the recently liberated Arab countries to embrace secularism during a speech in Cairo, a case was being launched back home against the Turkish journalist Ömer Baruter. His “crime?” A cartoon in daily Radikal proclaiming that “religion is a lie.”

This case is but one demonstration that Turkey’s own record on secularism is rather dubious.

While Turkey, in contrast to most Arab countries, does not have a state religion enshrined in the constitution, Sunni Islam of the Hanefi School is the de facto state religion in Turkey.

Its privileged position is secured through the Diyanet, or Religious Affairs Directorate, a state institution. According to the law, the Diyanet exercises guidance on religious and moral issues and administers all 85,000 mosques in Turkey.

It has a vast, and expanding, budget to implement this extremely broad mandate – much larger than most government ministries. While the Diyanet is financed by all Turkish taxpayers, it only promotes Sunni Islam.

The discriminatory nature of such a narrow emphasis is recognized by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2007 it ruled in favor of Hasan Zengin and his daughter Eylem, both Alevis, after they complained that compulsory religious education classes in schools violated the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to education. Both applicants argued that the religion classes were heavily colored by Sunni rituals and praying practices, while nothing was taught about Alevism, a heterodox, liberal interpretation of Islam.

In February 2010, the ECHR also ruled against the religious identification box on identity cards, as this was deemed to be a violation of the freedom of religion and beliefs. So far, Turkey has failed to act on these binding rulings. Predictably, the Diyanet sees both rulings as challenges to its Sunni-centric vision of Turkish society and lobbies hard against their implementation.

If the Diyanet were concerned with the issues of religious freedom only, such a stance would be problematic enough. But it has an expansionist vision of its role in shaping the moral order of society as a whole, not just the life of the believers. In this, it has found an ally in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which sees the Diyanet as a very useful vehicle for promoting its own socially and culturally conservative agenda. But the views and the activities of the Diyanet are often incompatible with the values of the human rights and the non-discrimination that Turkey officially adheres to.

The Diyanet’s position on women is a case in point. In 2008 it issued guidance on sexual life, which was harshly criticized by Turkish secularists and feminists for discouraging women from working in gender-mixed workplace, instructing women to “cover up properly so as to not arouse men” and equating dating and flirting with adultery. The decisions of the Diyanet Council in 2009 openly advocate discriminatory policies against homosexuals and commit the organization “to eradicating such sexual disorders, which are unacceptable in Islam.” The same document also favors exclusionary family policies by stigmatizing non-marriage relations as abnormal behavior.

The Diyanet also sees its role in “countering media output which mislead individuals against Islam,” which in practice means attacking freedom of speech. The Diyanet supported a complaint against “The Daughters of Allah,” a book by renowned Turkish novelist Nedim Gürsel, for allegedly denigrating religious values.

Recently, around 50 users of Ekşi Sözlük, a popular online, user-generated knowledge bank, were taken to the police for allegedly insulting religion. All these measures have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression and have led to alarming levels of self-censorship in matters related to Islam.

Erdoğan’s remarks on secularism in the Arab would have carried more credibility if Turkey were to address its own secularism deficits in a manner truly respectful of the right to practice any religion or none and consistent with Turkey’s obligations on non-discrimination and human rights.
*Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament and writes in a personal capacity.