Religious Freedom Still Tenuous in Turkey

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 38

Turkish Alevis commemorate the deaths of 37 Alevis murdered during a 1993 fire at the Madmikak Hotel

A Turkish court ruled in favor of an Alevi family requesting exemption for their daughter from attending religious lessons in primary school. The ruling highlights the state of religious freedom, as well as the demands of the Alevi community, in Turkey (Anadolu Ajansi, February 24).

The lawsuit by the girl’s family argued that the religious instruction was against their will and contradicted their religious and philosophical convictions. The plaintiff claimed that by insisting on compulsory religious education, the authorities violated Article 24 of the Turkish constitution regulating freedom of religion and compulsory religious education. The lawsuit also maintained that the student had experienced inner conflicts in this class and faced the risk of failing her classes.

The defendant, the Muratpasa District governorship, repeated Turkey’s position. Based on a 1990 decision, Turkish authorities claim that exemption from compulsory religious education applies only to Christian and Jewish students. Since Alevism is considered a branch of Islam, Alevi students cannot request the exemption.

The court based its ruling on Article 24 of the constitution, and Article 9 of the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It ruled that those laws protected everyone’s religious freedom. The court also noted that Turkish regulations had granted exemptions to non-Muslim groups and those families that do not subscribe to any religious beliefs. The court ruled that "irrespective of whether they [the parents] subscribe to any religion, their request for exemption of their child from compulsory religious instruction needs to be considered under the freedom of religious beliefs… [and] since the continuation of the current practice will cause irrevocable harm [to the child], a moratorium is being issued unanimously."

The family lawyer claimed that "the ruling establishes a precedent" for other families seeking similar exemptions. Alevi groups pressing for the abolishment of compulsory religious education also welcomed the decision (, February 24). Turkish courts had previously ruled in favor of parents seeking an exemption for their children from compulsory religious education in about eight cases. In a 2007 verdict the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Turkey in a similar case and found that the existing exemption procedures did not provide protection to parents (, September 10, 2007). The Turkish authorities objected to those decisions and denied that they established a precedent (Radikal, October 11, 2007). The Ministry of Education is reportedly preparing to challenge the Antalya court decision (Takvim, February 25).

The latest case highlights the contradictions in Turkey’s practice of religious freedom. Although Turkey does not have an official religion, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and the Ministry of Education follow Sunni Islam, particularly the Hanefi branch, in religious services and education in schools. Given their differences from and historical problems with Turkey’s Sunni majority, the Alevis have been among the main critics of the religious establishment in Turkey.

For decades their demands have fallen on deaf ears, and despite the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) initiatives to reach out to the Alevi communities and improve their conditions, most Alevis believe that their demands are not being met. Partly out of frustration and partly because of the inner divisions within the Alevi community, leading Alevi groups organized a "Grand Alevi Rally" in November. Their demands included the abolishment of compulsory religious classes in high schools; the recognition of Alevi praying houses (Cemevleri) as places of worship; turning the Madimak Hotel, where 37 Alevis lost their lives during a Sunni protest in 1993, into a museum; and the abolishment of the Diyanet (EDM, November 17).

Since that rally, partial progress has been achieved only with regard to the Madimak hotel issue. Although the hotel has not been converted to a memorial museum, the kebab house there has now been vacated and the Culture Ministry will open a facility in the same place, in which the victims will be remembered (Radikal, February 13). Alevis’ demands for the abolishment of the Diyanet will possibly never be realized, as the Turkish establishment views the Diyanet, which has become a major part of the state bureaucracy, as a barrier against any sort of religious extremism. Although some Alevi groups would prefer a reorganization of the Diyanet or Alevi representation within the body, these demands are also unlikely to be fulfilled. Alevis eventually may have Cemevleri recognized as houses of worship, but that will not come easily. The AKP government prefers to view the Alevis as a cultural group and is worried that giving them separate representation in the Diyanet or recognizing Cemevleri might create a perception that Alevism is distinct from Islam. Instead, the AKP claims to be converting the Diyanet into an institution independent of all mezheps (schools of Islamic law), which the government feels should satisfy the Alevis (Yeni Safak, December 29).

The reaction of Turkish authorities to the recent ruling also indicates that overcoming the compulsory religious education requirement will be a struggle for the Alevi community. Another major education-related demand concerns the information about Alevism in Turkish schoolbooks. Alevis used to claim that their role in Turkish history was only partially mentioned in textbooks and that in some cases the books contained stereotypical information about their beliefs. Despite some revisions in recent years and the inclusion of Alevism in religious instruction books as a mystical interpretation of Islam (tasavvuf), Alevi associations are unsatisfied with the progress (Aksam, September 16, 2007; Sabah, October 2).

This case highlights one of the ironies of religious freedom in the Turkish Republic, which professes to be secular. On the one hand, the government seeks to control religious activities in the country through the Diyanet and enforce compulsory religious instruction, to the discomfort mainly of the Alevi community. On the other hand, it uses the principle of secularism to suppress expressions of religious demands from the Sunni community, as in the case of the headscarf ban. Although it claims to be working to expand everyone’s religious freedom, the AKP government has failed so far to satisfy the demands of either group. It might be time to consider the two groups in the same light.