DALLAS, August 11, 2012 – It’s true: Turkey is being categorized as a country that tramples religious freedom for, among other things, oppressing the right to worship of its huge Muslim majority. Many Americans don’t care. But for those who do take the time to examine Turkey’s relationship with the West, it can be confusing. Like lots of relationships today, “it’s complicated.”
Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2012 report, which among other things, designated Turkey a “Country of Particular Concern.” This puts it in the same category as such tyrannical regimes as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. It is hard to imagine anything that would have insulted Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sensibilities more.
To be lumped in with Wahhabi-led Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Oh, the injustice! For indeed Turkey is far freer, far more modern, far more tolerant than those countries. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its displeasure by saying:
“No impartial observer could take seriously the allegations in this report, which intentionally turns a blind eye to the advances and the political will that has constituted the basis for reforms. This report is null and void for us.”
Apparently, not all of the Commission members thought it was the right decision either. Four of the nine commissioners wrote dissenting opinions.
Does Turkey deserve to be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)? Anyone who reads the facts of the report would have to agree it does. The problem is that putting Turkey in the same category as Sudan or Pakistan is patently unfair. The solution? A new category that would suit regimes like Saudi Arabia. We could call this new designation Hypocritical Extremist Loathers of Liberty (HELL).
Is this new category likely to be created? No. The reason is simple: politics and pandering. Case in point – Saudi Arabia, again.
This is the same country that refuses to acknowledge diversity of any kind when it comes to religion and prohibits any non-Muslim worship; yet, it was not even classified as a Country of Particular Concern until 2004, fully six years after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 became law. The worst violator on the planet managed to keep its name off the list for six years! This taints the objective value of the report considerably.
Ratings like this should be based on objective criteria and the facts on the ground not politics. Yet, after this year’s report was released, it came to light that Don Argue, one of the five commissioners who recommended the CPC classification for Turkey, tried to change his mind at the last minute. The reason for his sudden change of heart? A visit from Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.
This unacceptable State Department intrusion into the affairs of an “independent commission” apparently occurred after one of the commissioners informed State about the results of the deliberations. This news was not well received, but it was too late to change the designation because business and debate had already been concluded in accordance with the commission’s duly accepted procedural timetable.
The Obama administration has, like the Bush administration, maintained close ties with the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan, an outspoken Muslim whose religious values have wide appeal in the Middle East. But the administration’s last-minute attempt to keep its NATO ally from being embarrassed left it with egg on its face. It is a veritable scandal.
Back to the report. A casual reader of this detailed description of obstacles to religious freedom in Turkey will be surprised to find the following assertion (emphasis my own):
“The state’s strict control of religion in the public sphere significantly restricts religious freedom, especially for non-Muslim religious minority communities – including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community – as well as for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the country’s largest minority, the Alevis.”
Apparently, there is no religious group in Turkey that isn’t persecuted! And strangely enough there is some truth to this. I say “some” truth because, well, it’s complicated, which is why restricted religious freedom even for the majority Sunni Muslims is, for Americans, counter-intuitive.
First of all, the Republic of Turkey is a secular state as defined by its 1923 constitution, a fact reiterated in the 1982 constitution. What outsiders don’t understand is that “secularism” is the state religion; a fact you will see shortly.
Second, the openly Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Erdoğan has ruled the country since 2002, sparking a wide-ranging debate about how Turkey was moving out of the West’s orbit and towards an axis that displayed more solidarity with the Muslim world.
Third, according to government statistics, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim (Alevis are included here). If this figure is adjusted for “atheist” or “agnostic” Muslims, then the number is probably more like 95%. Ninety-five percent is still an overwhelming majority by any definition, so how is the religious freedom of Muslims restricted in a majority Muslim population?
It is at this point that Americans find themselves in a realm that defies description by all modern paradigms. To illustrate this, consider that, 1) until 2007 the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs determined the content of all Friday sermons.
Imagining a United States of America where Southern Baptist preachers and TV evangelists utilize outlines they receive from Washington bureaucrats to provide weekly spiritual nourishment for their flocks is almost as hard as imagining a US Department of Religious Affairs in the first place.
2) The salaries of all the Sunni Muslim clerics in the country are paid by the government and mosques are generally built by the state, not individual congregations, a fact that is extremely unpopular with tax payers such as atheists, Alevis, and other minority religious groups who do not benefit from this state largesse.
When the French courageously passed a law banning the burqa, it was hotly contested in the West as an infringement of Muslim rights and only a decade of the fear and tension arising from the War on Terror actually gave the ban any chance at all. So, my American friends are always shocked to learn that, until very recently, 3) women in Turkey were not allowed to attend any university classes or work in government buildings if they wore a head-covering.
Though restrictions on the freedom of religious expression have improved for Sunnis in the last five years, the report still finds this “progress” unacceptable:
“The government officially does not permit the individual or communal practice of Islam outside of government-regulated institutions. The majority Sunni Muslim community is under the control of the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, which reports directly to the Prime Minister.”
Anyone can see that such restrictions on religious expression are antithetical to a free society. The Turkish state controls religion even if there has been some relaxing of this control since the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. The military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were in part justified by referring to a “threat to the secular order”, and pious Turkish Muslims have long complained of state persecution.
This sort of “government interference” in the affairs of religious communities is simply inconceivable in America. The Turkish tradition of exercising state control over religious leaders is not, however, new. It was common practice in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Republic of Turkey, secularism was a deceptively innocent term that served as a disguise for the social engineering the survivors of WWI felt was necessary for Turkey to survive as a nation.
It did not mean freedom of religion in the sense that the state is neutral. The state is anything but neutral. After all, the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is the defacto doctrine of the state and freedom of religion is not the primary concern. Control is. (The third part in this series entitled “The Backside of Empire” will address this issue in detail.)
To be fair, some modern Turkish secularists have insisted that without such state control, the majority Muslim population would naturally revert to a governmental system based on sharia law and that the only way to ensure the “secular” country envisioned by the great reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is to keep a tight rein on the expression of religious zeal in order to counteract the various religious groups that still want to restore the Caliphate and sharia law.
This approach could be described as ensuring not “freedom of religion,” but “freedom from religion,” as there is no compulsion about matters of faith in Turkey. The freedom guaranteed is essentially the freedom to not practice their faith. The importance of this freedom cannot be overlooked in a region where countries like Saudi Arabia actually have “religious police” to ensure that the population is walking the straight and narrow.
In summary, it’s complicated…
In the next article, we will look at state control over minority religious groups – the real reason for the new rating given by the USCIRF.
This is part one in a series on “Understanding Freedom in Turkey”
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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