Yildirim on Turkey’s Draft Constitution

The Forum 18 Blog has an interesting article by Mine Yildirim (Åbo Akademi University) on the freedom of religion provisions in a draft constitution currently under consideration in Turkey. The ruling Islamist AKP party and the opposition secularist CHP party have agreed on some provisions, but not all, and Yildirim describes the result as a mixed bag. For example, for the first time, the constitution will contain a clause conferring a right to change one’s religion. As Yildirim points out, many majority-Muslim countries reject such a right, and the AKP deserves some credit for accepting the language (though Islamists sometimes interpret such language to confer only a right to convert to Islam). On the other hand, the AKP has refused to discontinue compulsory religion classes in public schools. Minorities, especially Alevis, claim these classes amount to proselytism, and the ECtHR has agreed on at least one occasion (Zengin v. Turkey). Also, the AKP rejected the CHP’s proposal for a clause stating that “the state is impartial toward all religions and beliefs in all its proceedings and actions and will respect social pluralism based on the diversity of religions, beliefs and opinions.” The AKP argued that such a provision would invalidate the state’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which has a major role in promoting Sunni Islam in Turkey. Here’s Yildirim’s closing paragraph:

The challenge for the AKP – as the current ruling party – remains to devise policies which genuinely respect the religious freedom of Turkey’s increasingly pluralistic society. This starts with the Constitution and also includes other legislative changes to protect religious freedom in line with the country’s existing human rights commitments. The AKP’s non-recognition of Alevi cem houses (places of worship), insistence on the compulsory [religious education] lessons, strengthening the Diyanet’s position as a publicly-funded religious institution, and the comments of AKP politicians, indicate that the party fails to devise policies that respect Turkey’s pluralistic reality and observe the principle of impartiality on the part of the state.

Alawites, Alevis, and Secularism in the Middle East

I’ve written before on CLR Forum about the plight of the Middle East’s Christians. As religious minorities, Christians favor state secularism; the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which have tended to bring Islamist parties to power, offer Christians as much to fear as to praise. But Christians are not the only religious minorities in the Middle East. As this very interesting essay by Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explains, Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey — two different groups, despite the similar-sounding names — number in the tens of millions. Both groups consider themselves Muslim, but some of their beliefs and practices differ dramatically from both Sunni and Shia Islam. For example, Alawites and Alevis drink wine and celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays; they do not veil women. Most Muslims, and certainly most Islamists, dismiss them as heretical.

Like Christians, Alawites and Alevis have tended to support secular parties: the Ba’ath Party in Syria and Kemalist parties in Turkey. Jenkins explains:

[B]oth movements . . . represented powerful bastions against religious extremism in the region, as they had everything to lose from any enforcement of strict Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. Both sects were powerfully invested in secularism, which in a Middle Eastern context usually meant Read more