Controversy on religious freedom, secularism lingers in constitutional drafting process

The Constitutional Reconciliation Commission is having difficulty coming to consensus, which could prompt officials to develop a new vague charter or even drop the constitution-writing process.

By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 02/11/12

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A heated debate over secularism and the role of religion is re-emerging over the drafting of a new constitution, and the dispute is threatening to derail the process.

  • Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, (left) spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, speaks to members of the parliamentary subcommittee seeking an all-party consensus for a new constitution in Ankara, on February 20th. [AFP]

    Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, (left) spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, speaks to members of the parliamentary subcommittee seeking an all-party consensus for a new constitution in Ankara, on February 20th. [AFP]

The 12 members of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, the cross-party parliamentary body tasked with drafting the country's new civilian constitution, have written 38 draft articles of the Fundamental Rights and Freedom chapter since May.

However, all the articles were written with reservations by one or more of the four parties in parliament. Failure to reach an accord could torpedo the whole process, as an all-party consensus is required to approve articles.

"We simply can't move forward if there is no trust and co-operation between the parties … This is a very critical moment," said commission member Atilla Kart, who represents main opposition CHP.

Kart said religious freedom and secularism are "the main controversial topics at the moment."

"We strongly advocate for the pluralism of belief, which means to recognize and protect the rights of all religious groups, while the AKP doesn’t want to accept, even discuss it," Kart told SES Türkiye.

The AKP made drafting a new civilian constitution a priority for its fourth term after it won last year's national elections. But with many contentious subjects and the parties far apart on many major issues, the whole drafting process could ultimately unravel, analysts said.

One option to overcome the hurdles could be a minimalist constitution that brushes over the main areas of contention. Another option could be the AKP dropping the process or pushing through its own constitution with the support of the ultra-nationalist MHP.

The relationship between religion and the state is one of the most explosive issues of the constitutional debate. The debate stems in part from the hybrid nature of Turkish secularism developed in response to unique historical circumstances.

Unlike the French or Anglo-Saxon model of secularism which separates the state and religion, Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs plays a direct role in religion by training and paying the salary of imams, writing sermons and directing many aspects of religious life in the country.

The directorate caters to Sunni Muslims, making the legal status and state's relationship with other religions a key feature of the debate over religion.

Only non-Muslim religious and ethnic groups recognised under the Treaty of Lausanne -- Jews, Greek Orthodox and Armenians -- have legal status and control over their religious affairs, although without the support of state funds.

The Sunni-centred nature of Turkish secularism leaves the large Alevi minority, up to 20 percent of the population and a traditional bastion of secularism, without state support and subject to official Sunni interpretations of Islam.

"In fact, minorities such as Alevi Muslims and non-believers do not receive any services from the directorate," said Ilter Turan, president of the Istanbul-based Political Science Association.

The debate over the constitution and the role of religion is therefore "highly significant since it will decide on the level and which religion will be able to influence public and political life in the country," Turan told SES Türkiye.

The debate over religion has been compounded by the suspicion among secularists, Kemalists and the opposition at large that as the AKP consolidates power and redefines secularism, there is a creeping Islamisation of society, politics and the state.

Erdogan's statement earlier this year that he wanted to create a "pious generation" sounded alarm bells, as have a string of reforms and laws passed that while expanding religious freedom, have also been interpreted as promoting Sunnism at the expense of other religious sects.

The most suspicious of the secularist block believes that from day one the AKP has been engaging in takkiye, a tactic in Islamic jurisprudence that allows for the use of deception for religious purposes, namely to create an Islamic state.

"The remnants of the old elite, the Kemalists, and some leftists are very much concerned due to recent concrete institutional steps," Onder Kucukural, a researcher in the political science program at Sabanci University, told SES Türkiye.

At first glance, this debate has two sides.

On the one hand there are Kemalists who argue for state-led understanding of secularism, where state controls religion. This model has been criticised by the AKP due to the restrictions it has placed on the pious.

On the other hand, the AKP and some liberals favor an Anglo-Saxon type of secularism or passive secularism, which looks to broaden religious freedoms for all groups.

However, this is not the case, Kucukural said.

"It is true that Kemalists' way of defining secularism is highly oppressive and it curbs religious freedoms, especially freedoms of pious Muslims in Turkey. But so far AKP's policy implementation and new institutional arrangements have shown that they are also in favor of instituting a state-led repressive, monolithic understanding of religion," he said.

Kucukural also said that the ruling party insists on preserving the Directorate of Religious Affairs the way it was instituted after the 1980 coup.

"AKP's insistence of establishing mosques in every university, new regulations in religious education in secondary schools, and imam and preachers high schools are only few examples reflecting continuation of the same mentality," he said.


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  • Anonymous over 2 years

    My personal opinion is that those, who are working in the making of the new constitution, but fail to implement the practices set forth in the current constitution or try to replace the “unfavorable” provisions of the constitution with new ones that would cater to their political goals, should first abide by the existing constitution in order to show that it is insufficient as it is. Those, who do not respect the existing constitution, would be biased in the making of the new one. Nevertheless, I still wish them success in their efforts, if such efforts are for God’s sake and for the good of the country. I am sending my prayers and greetings.

Name: Anonymous - Have your comments posted immediately!

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