Thursday, September 29, 2011

Turkey's Elephant in the Room: Religious Freedom

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.

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