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  • September 2016

There is an ongoing debate in Turkey nowadays concerning both secularism and the Diyanet (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, directorate of religious affairs). Two articles can help to understand the background of these discussions, by highlighting the importance of the Diyanet and explaining the Turkish understanding of secularism.

Firstly, a report on The Management of Religion in Turkey, issued by the Turkey Institute in 2014, describes the relationship between religion and politics in a Muslim-majority country. This relationship has wider implications for the neighbouring region, due to the fact that Turkey has a secular state structure and a mostly Muslim population. In addition, the implications for minorities, control of religion by the State, and freedom of religion or belief, have great significance not only for academic research and discussion but also for day-to-day political decision-making. This analysis is highly relevant to the recent developments in Turkey, currently governed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which uses religious rhetoric, and appeals to the public with and through religious sensitivity. Last but not least, the management of religion in Turkey also has an impact on Turkey’s democracy, human rights, equality and good governance. In that sense, it will be closely monitored by the European Union, as stated in its recently published progress report on Turkey.

An article of Murat Somer, from Koç University, "Moderate Islam and Secularist Opposition in Turkey", can also be of interest although having been published in 2007. Developing an argument based in theories of democratic consolidation and religious competition, and discussing the reasons for the secularist opposition to the government, this article analyses how government by a party rooted in moderate Islamism may affect Turkey’s peculiar secular democracy, development and external relations and how Muslims in the world relate to modernization and democracy.

Source: Istar Gozaydın and Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, The Management of Religion in Turkey, Turkey Institute, November 2014;
Murat Somer, "Moderate Islam and Secularist Opposition in Turkey", Third World Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 7, 2007, p. 1271 – 1289.

Ahmet Erdi Öztürk
  • May 2015: Legalisation of religious marriage in Turkey

On 30 May 2015, Turkey’s Constitutional Court repealed a law which banned celebrating religious marriage before civil marriage. This law, aimed at the outset at protecting women, was regarded as contrary to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
The ban, dated back to 1936, was aimed at preventing forced marriages, the marriage of minors and abuses in regions where archaism and the patriarchate dominate. The law also aimed at protecting women’s rights and those of their children who, outside of civil marriage, cannot benefit from inheritances, alimony and other aid which couples united by civil marriage receive. But, by 12 votes against 4, the judges considered that this provision contravened equality before the law, religious freedom and respect for privacy. They highlighted the fact that the legislation did not envisage any sanction for free union, contrary to religious marriage, and identified this as discriminatory.
Associations defending women’s rights fear that this new decision may facilitate forced marriage, the marriage of very young girls and insecurity for women.

Sources: Laïcité-Revue de presse and Le Petit Journal-Istanbul.

Nihal Durmaz
  • 22 September 2014: the wearing of the veil is henceforth authorised in high schools in Turkey

Following the meeting of the Council of Ministers of 22 September 2014 in Ankara, Government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç announced that regulations on banned and permitted clothing had been modified. According to Arinç’s explanation, the term “uncovered head” present in paragraph “e” of Article 4 of the regulations, as well as in the last sentence of this same paragraph, had been repealed.
This change is presented as a measure intended to widen personal freedoms, but it became the target of sharp criticism. The secular opposition considered that it is an act aimed at reinforcing Islamisation of the country, highlighting that the freedoms are broadened only in one domain.

For more information, see Le Nouvel Observateur.

Nihal Durmaz
  • September 2013: “democratic package” adopted by the Turkish Government

On 30 September 2013, Prime Minister Mr Tayyip Erdogan announced a “democratic package” relating to freedoms and rights for minorities.

Some points concerning minorities:

a. It will be possible to choose between different languages and dialects for the language of instruction in private schools, some subjects will however continue to be taught in Turkish.
b. The Mor Gabriel Monastery, located near the town of Midyat in the Turkish province of Mardin, will be handed back to the Orthodox Syrians. Since 2009, the monastery was in conflict with the Turkish State.
c. The Grand Orthodox Seminary of Heybeliada Island, Halki in Greek, will not be reopened. The Halki Institute of Orthodox Theology is a higher education institution dedicated to the theological training of the Orthodox clergy and is located on the island of Heybeli in the Marmara Sea near Istanbul. It depends on the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Founded in 1844, it was closed by Turkish authorities in 1971. Among the many points of discussion, its reopening is considered important for Turkey joining the European Union.
d. Towns and villages whose names underwent Turkification after 1980 can reuse their original names. Tunceli will thus revert to being Dersim. This process was already underway. The letters Q, X and W, which exist in Kurdish but not in Turkish, can henceforth be used.
e. Electoral propaganda will be allowed in languages other than Turkish. When writing and at public meetings, political leaders may also use languages other than Turkish. The Constitutional Court had already ordered the Government to respect this right in 2011.
f. There has been no progress regarding the status of the cemevi - the Alevi places of worship - which are still not recognised, thereby remaining problematic for this community.
g. The Government has guaranteed the creation of an institute of Roma languages and cultures.

Source: Liberation, L’Express, Le petit journal.

  • February 2008: The Islamic headscarf in universities

On Saturday 2nd February in Ankara, tens of thousands of protesters denounced a government proposal to lift the ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. The issue of secularity and the meaning and application of this concept have always been a major concern in Turkish political life, especially since the rise of political Islam in the mid-1960s with the Millî Görüs movement. The AKP political group (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, Party of Justice and Development), arose from this movement and came to power in 2002; the offices of the President of the Republic and of executives of public administration are occupied by people close to this movement. Since then, the issue of the secular future of the country has become red hot and is crystallising around two key issues affecting young people: that of Islamic headscarves in universities and that of the status of schools for imams and preachers.
The AKP and the MHP (Party for the Nationalist Movement) have agreed to some constitutional changes that open the doors of universities to girls wearing the Islamic headscarf, banned up until now (or tolerated in some universities). The secular opposition sees this as a way to undermine the secular, modern, Western foundations of Turkish society on the pretext of "human rights and freedom of belief." Opposition groups, largely from the urban, neo-kemalist ’left’ do not fear nearly as much the presence of "turban-wearers" on university benches as the moment when this generation will integrate political, social and public life, extending their conservative, religious vision and their own particular understanding of "modernity" to the entire public sphere. Tens of thousands of people marched on 2nd February 2008 to the mausoleum of Atatürk, the father of secular, coercive Turkey, led by the CHP (the Republican People’s Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal himself), which intends to take the matter to the Constitutional Court. They hope that the latter will oppose it, considering it an attack on the principle of secularity etched in stone, like the articles of the Constitution, "immutable and to which it is forbidden to propose changes".
However, since 2002 (and especially since July 2007), senior legal and administrative figures increasingly include either people close to the AKP or liberals who believe that the Kemalist dogma must change (which is the case for the President of the Constitutional Court or the President of the Institution of Higher Education - YÖK), even if state officials and legal staff remain loyal to the Kemalist dogma. The legal (Constitutional Court) or administrative (YÖK) opposition could then be insufficient to stem the intrusion of religion into the public arena.
Despite opposition protests, the Turkish Parliament in fact adopted this amendment to the Constitution on Thursday, 7th February with 404 votes in favour to 92 against, which was far more than the two thirds of votes required (367).

Samim Akgönül
  • October 2007: The issue of secularism

Following the legislative and presidential elections which confirmed the political supremacy of the AKP (the party in power obtained 47% of the votes and its candidate Abdullah Gül was elected President of the Republic), the debates around the issue of secularism intensified once more. The opposition parties, i.e. Kemalists and militaries accuse the AKP of weakening the secular pillars of the Turkish society, a very particular interpretation of secularism characterized by the control of religion by the State. According to the AKP, secularism goes with the free practice of religion including the wearing of religious signs in public places, i.e. the Islamic veil. Following the creation of the new Government, the power in place started to write a new "civil" Constitution. The current Constitution is the result of the military takeover of 1980 with some modifications. In the new Constitution, in which religion is absent, the coercive secularism is less tough, although the text remains unmodified.

Samim Akgönül
  • November 2005: Decision of the European Court of Human Rights

On 10 November 2005, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its final judgement in the case of "Leyla Sahin versus Turkey". Leyla Sahin is a young Turkish national of 22 years who wears the Islamic headscarf. Her complaint against Turkey was based on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which concerns freedom of religion. Miss Sahin was unable to continue her studies at the Medical faculty of the University following a circular refusing students with beards and those wearing the Islamic headscarf access to class. The Grand Chamber rejected the complaint, noting that this interference in Miss Sahin’s exercise of her right to manifest her religion was founded on the principles of secularism and equality.
This judgement sparked raging debate in Turkish political and social circles. In fact, the current political power held by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) (an offshoot of the bigger Islamic political movement the Millî Görüş, but which has since distanced itself from them), launched a campaign for the lifting of the ban on the Islamic headscarf in Universities. And so, maybe for the first time in the history of the ECHR, a Government was looking forward to its own sentence, hoping that it could be used afterwards as indisputable reference in the abrogation of the ban on the Islamic headscarf. The day after the judgement was published, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the ECHR of not having consulted with experts in Islamic law on the issue whereas this was regularly done for issues bordering on Christianity. This mention of the authority of the "ulemas" immediately sparked furious reactions from Turkish secular circles. They accused the Government of digressing from the principle of secularism enschrined in Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution - one of the articles not open to modification. Since then the Prime Minister has softened his tone, while he has maintained the idea that this judgement would not prevent future changes to the law.

See the judgement of 10 November 2005.

Samim Akgönül

D 16 January 2017    AAhmet Erdi Öztürk ANihal Durmaz ASamim Akgönül

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