Turkey on US watch list for violating religious freedoms

A headscarf ban enforced despite no legal foundation forces women to remove their headscarves on university campuses.

April 30, 2010, Friday/ 17:12:00
Turkey remains on a US panel's watch list of 12 countries for its violations of religious freedoms. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on Thursday, designating 13 Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in terms of such violations while also putting 12 others on a watch list for close monitoring in that regard. Turkey remains on the watch list this year also. It was designated for close monitoring for the first time in 2009. The fact that very little has changed in terms of restrictions imposed on people has resulted in it retaining its status as a violator country in the view of the USCIRF.

According to the report, this year's CPCs are Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

In addition to these 13 countries, designated the worst violators of religious freedoms around the world, the 2010 watch list includes Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan and Venezuela as well as Turkey with respect to “the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.” The panel’s report also criticized the current and former US administrations for doing little to make basic religious rights universal.

The commission was founded in 1998 by an act of Congress and has investigated conditions in what it calls “hot spots” where religious freedom is endangered.

Thursday’s report described violations of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia as “systematic, egregious and ongoing” despite limited reforms implemented by King Abdullah. “In China, the government continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of the freedom of religion or belief,” the report said. It alleged “a marked deterioration in the past year, particularly in Tibetan Buddhist and Uighur Muslim areas.”

It had similar observations for the other countries listed. In Iran, it noted “prolonged detention, torture and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” It said the Tehran government’s record deteriorated after contentious elections in June. The commission’s chairman, Leonard Leo, said in a statement that visits to the “hot spots” had found situations “where freedom of religion is obstructed and related human rights are trampled.”

State’s interpretation of secularism problematic in Turkey

USCIRF, which also publishes country reports in addition to its general report, has kept a close eye on Turkey for such violations. Last year’s report on Turkey drew particular attention of the problematic interpretation of secularism in the country. “The Turkish state’s interpretation of secularism has resulted in religious freedom violations for many of Turkey’s citizens, including members of majority and, especially, for minority religious communities,” the report said, adding that the state uses “preserving the secular state” as a pretext for “significant restrictions” it imposes on majority Muslims.

“The Turkish government’s concept of secularism differs from the American version of separation of religion and state, as it reflects state control over any religious activity in the public sphere,” was another observation the report made with regard to the Turkish practice of secularism, which is very much a distorted form of the modern understanding of the notion.

The 2009 report also underlined the military influence over the government in terms of restricting the presence of religion in public life. It detailed how every Turkish government that “confronted the state’s definition of secularism” was either banned by the Constitutional Court or ousted through military coups.

Turkey suffered from four military coups in less than 37 years. However, the military’s attempts to influence the government did not cease even after the last of these four interventions. On April 27, 2007, the General Staff issued a memorandum threatening the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government but failed to achieve its goal thanks to the ruling party’s firm stance against the move.

The headscarf ban, which started to be strictly enforced following the Feb. 28, 1997 coup, was put forward as an example of restrictions imposed on Muslims with pressure exerted by the military. Women are not allowed to attend universities or work for public institutions while wearing headscarves although such a ban lacks any legal foundation. Some women were even denied entry to hospitals as patients just because they cover their head.

In February 2008, a government-proposed amendment was passed with 411 votes in the 550-seat Parliament to lift the ban at universities, but the Constitutional Court overruled the amendment, saying that it was against the secular state and therefore unconstitutional. The AK Party also faced a closure case a month later mainly as a result of its attempt to lift the unpopular ban.

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