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Turkey's Elephant in the Room: Religious Freedom
By Susanne Gusten

ISTANBUL -- With his triumphant tour of the countries of the Arab Spring this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to set up Turkey on the international stage as a role model for a secular democracy in a Muslim country -- as, in his words, "a secular state where all religions are equal."

The only trouble is that he has yet to make that happen for Turkey.

The relationship between religion and the state, ever the sore spot of Turkish identity, is one of the most explosive issues of the debate on the new constitution that Mr. Erdogan has pledged to give the country in the new legislative term that opens Saturday.

That debate will have to deal with the elephant in the room: the total control that the state exerts over Islam through its Religious Affairs Department, and the lack of a legal status for all other religions in a predominantly Sunni Muslim society.

"Turkey may look like a secular state on paper, but in terms of international law it is actually a Sunni Islamic state," Izzettin Dogan, a leader of the country's Alevi minority, charged at a joint press conference with leaders of several other minority faiths last week in Istanbul.

Mr. Dogan is honorary president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, which represents many of what it claims are up to 30 million adherents of the Alevi faith, an Anatolian religion close to Sufi Islam but separate and distinct in its beliefs and practices.

"The state collects taxes from all of us and spends billions on Sunni Islam alone, while millions of Alevis as well as Christians, Jews and other faiths don't receive a penny," Mr. Dogan said, referring to the $1.5 billion budget of the Religious Affairs Department. "What kind of secularism is that?"

A bureaucratic juggernaut with its own news service and a dedicated trade union, the Religious Affairs Department employs more than 106,000 civil servants, according to its latest annual report, including 60,000 imams and 10,000 muezzins, all of them trained, hired and fired by the state.

At the institution's ministry-size headquarters in Ankara, state-employed astronomers calculate prayer times around the world, while state-educated theologians pore over the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad in the library and issue the religious rulings known as fatwas.

The department writes the sermons for Friday Prayer in mosques across the country as well as the textbooks for the religious instruction that is mandatory in schools. It publishes books and periodicals in languages including Tatar, Mongol and Uygur, and issues an iPhone app featuring Koranic verses and a prayertime alarm. The department has a monopoly on Koran courses in the country, and it organizes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, right down to the vaccination of pilgrims.

So centralized is the department's control that its new president, Mehmet Gormez, is considered innovative for announcing his intention to train preachers to deliver sermons in person, instead of having them piped into the mosque from the department over a public-address system.

"In Turkey, Islam does not determine politics, but politics determine Islam," Gunter Seufert, a sociologist, concluded in a 2004 study of the department entitled "State and Islam in Turkey."

"Run by a state agency, religion serves the nation state for the purpose of unifying the nation and Westernizing its Muslims," he added.

With historical roots in the Ottoman Empire, where state and Islam were linked in the union of sultanate and caliphate, the Religious Affairs Department was founded early in the Turkish Republic, in March 1924, on the day the caliphate was abolished.

Charged by law with managing Islam, the department has been enshrined in the Constitution ever since the country's first military coup in 1961, with the present Constitution, a relic of the 1982 coup, explicitly charging it with the task of furthering national unity.

Ministering to Sunni Islam of the Halafi school, the department does not recognize non-Sunni communities like the Alevis or Caferis as distinct religious faiths, subsuming them under the common label of "Muslim," the basis for the depiction of Turkey as a religiously homogenous country that describes its population as "99 percent Muslim."

While the distribution of believers among the faiths encompassed by that term is contested, a 2007 survey by the Konda institute, a public opinion research company in Turkey, found that 82 percent of Turks describe themselves as Hanafi Sunni Muslims.

The new constitution, Mr. Dogan of the Alevi federation demanded, must do away with their privileged status. "The state must be impartial and treat all religious communities equally and maintain equal distance to all of them," he said. "These definitions must be written into the new constitution verbatim."

Mr. Dogan was speaking at the presentation of a report on the "Shared Problems and Demands of Turkey's Religious Communities," prepared by Ozge Genc and Ayhan Kaya, political scientists at Istanbul Bilgi University.

The report is based on research in the Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant Armenian communities, the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches as well as the Jewish community and Bahai, Yezidi, Shiite, Alevi, Mevlevi, Caferi and other groups.

As the report underlines, these communities all suffer from lack of legal status in Turkey, which renders it difficult for them to conduct even the most basic affairs and forces them into a shadowy existence at the mercy of political fashions and whims.

The 1,700-year-old Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, for example, has come to the brink of extinction since its seminary in Istanbul was closed down 40 years ago, drying up its source of clergymen. The Patriarchate hopes that the new constitution will "create the conditions for a reopening of the seminary," its spokesman, Pater Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, said by e-mail this week.

This will require a redefinition of the concept of secularism in Turkey, or simply a definition of the term in the Turkish constitution, as Mustafa Akyol, author of "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty," points out.

"The present constitution states that Turkey is laic, secular, but does not define the term," Mr. Akyol said by telephone this week. The interpretation has been left up to the constitutional court, he said, which has traditionally defined secularism as the complete absence of religion from the public sphere, as seen in its ban on head scarves for university students. It was that ban, among other things, that triggered the current secularism debate in Islamist circles, Mr. Akyol said.

"They began to see nuances in Western secularism. They saw that religious freedoms not available to them in Turkey, like the head scarf or the freedom to join Muslim orders, were available in America and many European countries, excepting France," he said. "They began to criticize the self-styled Turkish secularism, and to call for a redefinition of secularism."

While the debate still rages in Turkish society, "I think Erdogan made it clear that he is sincere" in his call for secularism, Mr. Akyol said. "That is how we would like to have it defined in the new constitution," he added, referring to Mr. Erdogan's remark that all religions should be equal.

But the Religious Affairs Department may not be so easy to sideline. While most of the proposals for the constitution prepared by nongovernmental organizations for the debate agree that the department cannot continue in its present form, none suggests abolishing it.

Even Tesev, an independent research institute in Istanbul, argues that "dissolving the Religious Affairs Department is not considered possible under present conditions." It suggests that other religious groups should be given equal status and privileges instead.

Other constitutional proposals suggest that the department's reach should be extended to include other faiths, an idea unlikely to sit well with all communities.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople, while declining to comment on the proposal, has strenuously resisted previous proposals to incorporate its seminary into the theological faculty of a state university, arguing that it cannot relinquish control over its training.

While the Religious Affairs Department may face change, it is unlikely to be abolished, Mr. Akyol said. "Society is so used to it, so many people work for it," he said. "I don't expect it to change with the new constitution."


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