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May 09, 2012, Wednesday

‘One religion’ controversy

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remark that Turkey is united by “one religion” has not only drawn serious criticism from within the country but also from Europe, due to its highly discriminative character toward other sects and religions. Not only Christian minorities but also those from the Alevi (Shiite Muslim) sect in Turkey reacted sharply to Erdoğan’s emphasis on “one religion.” Western diplomats in Ankara were also appalled by Erdoğan’s remark, which they said was outrageous and that no single European prime minister or minister would dare to make such a statement.

The fact that Erdoğan made a highly discriminative remark regarding one religion came as a surprise since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been the only governing party in recent Turkish history that has been following policies that address the problems of not only non-Muslims but also Alevis.

The government passed a law last year that paved the way for the return of properties of Christian and Jewish religious foundations that have been confiscated since 1936. Under the law, in cases where property belonging to such groups has been sold by the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance.

Similarly, the government got together with all Alevi groups in Turkey to address their problems, such as discriminative religious policies. For example, the Alevi community in Turkey, which is estimated to number between 10 to 20 million, seeks official recognition of their worship places, called cemevis, which are different than the mosques where Sunni Muslims pray. Turkey’s state-run Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) only represents and promotes Sunni Islam and does not recognize Alevism. Erdoğan’s emphasis on “one religion” also comes at a time when increased incidents of doors of Alevi homes being marked in the southeastern province of Adıyaman have been taking place. This has caused fears that Alevi citizens will be attacked.

Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, with Sunnism being the dominant sect, while the country is secular by the Constitution. Kurds, in the meantime, are estimated to comprise up to 10 to 15 percent out of a Turkish population of 75 million. Prime Minister Erdoğan was addressing a party congress in the southern city of Adana last Saturday where he uttered the phrase “one religion,” under which he said Turkey is unified.

Neither he nor his office had made any denial or clarification of his controversial remark until recently. But only when asked did Hüseyin Çelik, deputy chairman of the party and its spokesperson, describe on May 7 Erdoğan’s remark of one religion as a slip of the tongue.

“The prime minister has never emphasized ‘one religion’ before. This is the first time he has said such a thing. He is also human, so it could have been a slip of the tongue. He might have meant the unity of hearts among Kurds and Turks, that there have been no conflicts. He could have been referring to a belief in the same book that is common to both Turks and Kurds,” Çelik told the Taraf daily on May 7.

Çelik said it is “essentially against the nature of things to suggest or imply a single [one] religion in a democratic, secular country.”

A denial, however, finally came from Erdoğan himself yesterday, upon his return from Italy, during which he said his remark on one religion was a slip of the tongue. “Criticisms leveled against me due to my utterance of this phrase were also right,” Erdoğan admitted.

At least, finally, the Turkish prime minister corrected his remark of one religion, which is expected to ease the concerns of the Europeans and those who are neither Muslim nor Sunni.

It is important that Erdoğan finally clarified his controversial remark as Turkey has been warning the European Union (EU) that it seeks to be a member, and that xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia are threatening Europe’s own values.

Still, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan could not prevent speculation among Europeans that his utterance of one religion may be reflective of his broader policy of becoming the leader of the Sunni Arab world.

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