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March 24, 2010, Wednesday

Lessons learned from mandatory religious lessons

When I was in high school, there were three of us who were exempted from religious lessons. The other two were Alevi boys. Although, like the majority in Turkey, my parents came from a Sunni Muslim background, they respected my wish to be exempted from this lesson, and through their petition, I became free! And through this “freedom,” I learnt a lot about my country that I could not learn by attending this lesson. I became very good friends with these two Alevi boys, and I learnt a lot about their culture, their daily lives and the hardship they confronted.

It was just after the military coup of 1980, and I found myself in a suffocating environment in high school as a teenager.

“Religion” and so-called “religious values” were being imposed on all of us. The architects of the 1980 military coup in Turkey wanted to create a “religious” society according to their own understanding and schools were trying to implement this project. It is quite ironic, is it not, that exactly the same military that opened all these religious schools, that included provisions in the Constitution to make religious lessons mandatory in schools, now claims to be fighting against religious “bigotry.” I cannot find any better example of hypocrisy than this. In the ’80s, the Turkish military believed that Turkish society was not religious enough, and in the ’90s, they decided that Turkish society had become much too religious and should be secularized once again.

Anyway, I want to return to my story. These religious lessons were extremely boring back then. We had to memorize verses from the Quran without knowing their meaning. They were trying to teach us not the essence or the values of religion but only the formal rules and ceremonies. For me, it was too difficult to bear this lesson, which made the already suffocating school atmosphere unbearable.

However, being exempted from the lesson created another kind of burden which would be quite difficult to carry for most children. We were being excluded by the majority in the school as “strange” pupils. For many years, I have not shared their political perspective on Turkey and I believe it’s based on a quite serious misunderstanding of the country, but I have always had a deep sympathy toward Alevis as individuals. I admire their humanity, their compassion and their rich culture. I wish they could be more flexible in their political affiliations, but instead, for historical reasons, they become victims of their fears and dogmas. However, I developed an insight into their feelings of being marginalized through my high school years, in which I spent a lot of time with my Alevi friends when we “escaped” from religious lessons.

I remembered and thought about all this as a result of a telephone call I received on Monday this week. The person on the other end of the phone was asking me how a Protestant student could be exempted from religious lessons in high school. He said to me that the child was traumatized as a result of being forced to recite “kalima-i shahadah.” Some people may wish to use this example to confirm their Islamophobic prejudices about Turkey, but you should listen to the rest of the story to have a better understanding of Turkey. I do not know how this family contacted them, but actually the people who called me were members of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER). MAZLUM-DER was established and governed mostly by devout Sunni Muslims in Turkey. As far as I understood, members of MAZLUM-DER in Diyarbakır took this Christian student’s situation very seriously and decided to fight against this military-style religious imposition. If I was a religious person, I would definitely do the same thing. I would accept my religion’s imposition on some by way of coercion as the biggest insult to my beliefs. I would like to congratulate the members of MAZLUM-DER for their exemplary attempt to save a Christian boy from this horrific situation.

I do not want to exaggerate my usual habit of thinking aloud, but I think there are lessons for all of us in these “mandatory” religious lesson stories. For foreigners: Turkey is an extremely complex country; if you really want to understand it, you should put aside all known stereotypes. Modernity, democratization and the other concepts do not work in Turkey as they may be working in your own countries. Do not fall into the usual traps about religion and secularism. To understand what is really going on in the country and who represents what, you need to look at matters from quite a nuanced perspective.

For the government: It is a shame that they have not changed this provision in the Constitution, which makes religious lessons mandatory and which was introduced by military dictatorship in Turkey. Turkey was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey) because of these mandatory religious lessons, and our government has not made the necessary amendments to honor this judgment.

This mini constitutional amendment package, which I hope will come to Parliament’s agenda soon, should definitely include this change, and Turkey should get rid of mandatory religious lessons, which were introduced by a military junta, as soon as possible. The terms mandatory and religion should never come together again.

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