Turkey Admits Having Secret Identity Codes for Religious Minorities

This story will strike many readers as odd, but it is nonetheless true. For decades, religious minorities in Turkey, especially Christians, have complained that the state assigns them secret identity codes. Christians maintain that government officials use the codes to discriminate against them when it comes to jobs, licenses, building permits, and so on. Of course, such discrimination would be illegal under Turkish law, which has banned religious discrimination since the Kemalist revolution. And complaints about secret identity codes surely must seem a bit paranoid to outsiders, a kind of conspiracy theory–though, given the genocide of Armenians and other Christians in Turkey 100 years ago, one could forgive Christians for being anxious.

Armenian Church in Istanbul

The rumors turn out to be true, however. This month, for the first time, Turkey’s interior ministry acknowledged that the secret identity codes do, in fact, exist. When an Istanbul family tried to register its child at a local Armenian school recently, officials asked the family to prove it had the so-called “2” code. The family had never been notified of any code and inquired what the officials meant. The education ministry passed the buck to the interior ministry, which eventually acknowledged that it indeed categorizes religious minorities by secret numeric codes: “1” for Greek Orthodox Christians, “2” for Armenian Apostolic Christians, “3” for Jews, and so on. The family’s lawyer states that his clients are now “waiting for an official document saying, ‘Yes, your race code is ‘2,’ you can register in an Armenian school.’”

In acknowledging the secret classification system, the interior ministry said the information about religious identity comes from Ottoman records, which the ministry uses in order to help religious minorities exercise their rights under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. With respect to education, for example, the ministry supplies the codes to school officials so that Armenians can attend Armenian schools. The government no longer collects information about religious or racial identity, the ministry claims.

Minority communities in Turkey are skeptical. If this was all on the up-and-up, why deny for so long that such codes exist? And why hide their existence from the so-called beneficiaries? After all, if the codes are meant to help minorities, you’d want to let the minorities know about them, not wait for local officials to reveal them by accident. And, given twentieth-century history, can anyone blame Christians in Turkey for thinking the codes are used to discriminate against them? The main opposition Republican People’s Party has threatened to make the issue of the secret codes a problem for the ruling AKP. “If this is true,” an opposition leader said, “it is fatal. It must be examined.” We’ll see.

Lecture: Can Public Reason Accommodate Conscience? (Sept. 4)

The International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU will host a lecture by Dean Brett Scharffs, “Can Public Reason Accommodate Conscience?”, on Wednesday, September 4, 2013:

Public reason as a framework for political dialogue has come to have a force in American and European political thought that might have come as a surprise even to its most articulate contemporary defender, John Rawls. But as religious and other minority or dissenting voices are increasingly pushed to the margins of public discourse, a serious philosophical, political, and practical question has arisen about the extent to which public reason can accommodate claims of conscience.  The basic problem can be presented starkly:  if public reason rules inadmissible reasons that are not publicly accessible, is there any reason to respect conscience at all, since by its very nature the claims of conscience may be private and only partially accessible or explicable?  If public reason reigns supreme as a model of public discourse, are claims of conscience doomed?

A live Web broadcast will be available. Details are here.

Tocqueville on Unitarianism

In the last two postings in this series, we considered Tocqueville’s thinking onWilliam Ellery Channing natural religion, especially in light of the views on that subject of two of his masters, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Like those two earlier thinkers, Tocqueville is interested in natural religion, not only for theological reasons, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for political ones. All three thinkers shared the view that religion is necessary or useful to government. And since Christianity was (and is) historically the dominant religion in the West, all three recognized that if any religion were to serve that purpose in Western societies, it would necessarily be Christianity. But Rousseau, at least, thought that Christianity, especially in the form of Roman Catholicism, was also potentially highly disruptive to society.Alexis de Tocqueville Rousseau, therefore, seems to have advocated “natural religion” – which he regarded as a purified form of Christianity – as an alternative to the traditional forms of that religion. Natural religion, as Rousseau conceived it, would offer the State the essential benefits of traditional Christianity: it would, e.g., function to integrate and bind the citizens together in a cohesive social union, and it would fashion their characters and inculcate virtuous habits in civically desirable ways. At the same time, Rousseau thought that natural religion would not have the destructive tendencies of traditional, revealed Christianity, among them that of teaching us to love our fellow humans as much as our fellow citizens. Rousseau may have thought that his natural religion was a particularly apt form of belief for democratic states, because its starting points were simple, common ideas that were accessible to people of ordinary intelligence and because its dogmatic teachings were few, undemanding, and generally accepted.

Tocqueville was far more uncertain that mere natural religion will suffice to serve the needs of a democracy. Thus, his position is different from that of Rousseau. True, as we saw in Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I, Tocqueville may be saying, in the chapter of Democracy in America entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” that democratic statesmen will do well enough for democracy if they succeed in maintaining in the general population a bare belief in the soul’s survival of the body’s death. But surely Tocqueville realized that that is an unstable position – a kind of half-way house between traditional, dogmatic Christianity and outright unbelief. Belief in the immortality of the soul at least has the sanction of long tradition and seems to answer to a deep human need; belief that the soul dies with the body is encouraged by the testimony of the senses and has the warrant of materialist philosophers going back to Lucretius. But what credible reason is there to think that the soul has a shadowy existence for a period after the body’s death, only to flicker out indefinitely later? And even if one could find a reason to credit such a belief, how effective would it be in motivating the kind of attitudes and conduct necessary for a vital democracy?

Thus, I am reluctant to think that Tocqueville’s considered view is that natural religion alone provides truly satisfactory and durable support for democracy. The better interpretation, as I shall try below to show, is that he thinks that democracy requires – or, at least, is better served by – a more traditional, revealed religion.

But if that interpretation is right, then Tocqueville would have had cause to question the long-term health and stability of American democracy. For, as we saw at the conclusion of the last post, he believes that Protestantism in America will tend to collapse into mere natural religion. See his Letter to de Chabrol (October 26, 1831). If natural religion is at best a weak and undependable safeguard for democracy, then the future of democracy, in a Protestant society like America, must be clouded.

The June 29, 1831 Letter to Kergolay

Tocqueville gives expression to these thoughts in a long and fascinating letter of June 29, 1831 to his intimate friend Louis de Kergolay. See Selected Letters 45 et seq. Plainly Tocqueville is extemporizing in this letter: it was written in two stages, and Tocqueville tells Kergolay at the start of the second stage that he writes “without knowing just what I am going to say to you.” Nonetheless the tumultuous flood of ideas in this letter reveals much about Tocqueville’s deeper thinking.

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Kühne, “Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945”

This August, Yale University Press published Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945 by Thomas Kühne (Clark University).  The publisher’s Belonging and Genocidedescription follows.

No one has ever posed a satisfactory explanation for the extreme inhumanity of the Holocaust. What enabled millions of Germans to perpetrate or condone the murder of the Jews? In this illuminating book, Thomas Kühne offers a provocative answer. In addition to the hatred of Jews or coercion that created a genocidal society, he contends, the desire for a united “people’s community” made Germans conform and join together in mass crime.

Exploring private letters, diaries, memoirs, secret reports, trial records, and other documents, the author shows how the Nazis used such common human needs as community, belonging, and solidarity to forge a nation conducting the worst crime in history.

Furtado, “Quakers”

This September, Random House will publish Quakers by Peter Furtado.  The Quakerspublisher’s description follows.

A small sect of fewer than 20,000 in the UK, and approximately 100,000 in the USA, Quakers have produced a disproportionate number of eminent thinkers, scientists, businessmen, and their teachings have been widely influential and become mainstream. Best known as pacifists, Quakers have always been at the forefront of social justice and conflict resolution, once being leaders in the abolitionist movement on three continents and, more recently, key players in international peacemaking and fighting global poverty. This book is a fascinating in-depth look at the Quaker religion, philosophy, distinctive culture and its place in history. With roots in the 17th century and the insights of George Fox, Quakers have a core belief in a direct experience of God by simply listening in silence with no need for priests, hierarchies, sacraments or other rituals, an absolute commitment to work for peace and have earned a reputation for being honest and plain speaking which helped them build successful enterprises in the 18th and 19th century. Like many religious sects, the Quakers also endured religious persecution and in the aftermath of the English Civil War fled to America for religious freedom, eventually establishing the Pennsylvania colony in 1681 as a haven for Quakers. Today, Quakers walk an intriguing line between their solemn and deeply held religious beliefs and the challenge of actively engaging in the modern world as they seek to better circumstances and in their founder’s words, “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”